Sponsors Run for Cover as Tv Vigilante Donald Wildmon Decides It's Prime Time for a Boycott

updated 07/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1981 01:00AM

To most of his townsfolk in hot, dusty Tupelo, Miss., the Rev. Donald Wildmon is all but unknown, a preacher without a pulpit in a town with a church on every corner. He left his church ministry four years ago to labor in the vineyard of national moral uplift, forsaking the service of his parishioners to lay plans and write pamphlets for his lonely direct-mail crusade, the National Federation for Decency. He tried to build a small-town, God-and-country constituency, working out of a nondescript $125-a-month office downtown. Decidedly uncharismatic, he made blandness a signature trait—"my mystique," he says, puffing on his pipe, deadpan. "He doesn't have much of a following in Tupelo," says John Hutchinson, managing editor of the Tupelo Daily Journal. The Rev. Alan Allard of Lee Acres Church of Christ agrees: "I never heard of Reverend Wildmon until I read about him in TV Guide."

For almost four years Wildmon's campaign against "excessive and gratuitous sex and violence on television" had little practical effect. Then last December Wildmon met the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose Moral Majority was in search of an act to follow the electoral landslide of the New Right. After a 15-minute meeting Wildmon had a new mandate and a bankroll. Within 60 days he had chartered an offshoot of NFD called Coalition for Better Television and had set about enlisting 4,000 volunteer monitors in 49 states to rate prime-time network TV shows for "moral offensiveness." It was not unlike surveys he had undertaken before, except that this one had the support of some 400 conservative religious and civic groups—among them the Pro Family Forum in Fort Worth and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum—as well as a commitment of $2 million from Moral Majority.

This week Wildmon, 43, is scheduled to announce his monitors' results—and to launch a year-long boycott against sponsors of the shows they found most offensive. What lasting effect the boycott will have remains to be seen, but Donald Wildmon is a stranger no more, at least in N.Y. and L.A. "You want me to lay it on the line?" he asked a reporter recently. "For years I was rebuffed, I was laughed at, condemned, scorned. I made a vow I would never come back again until I could sit across the table and be treated as an equal. They are doing that right now. They may not like it, they may not want to, but they have to because money's the name of the game. Now the shoe's on the other foot."

Advertisers, to be sure, do not court protest. Procter & Gamble—whose half-billion-dollar investment in TV advertising last year puts it far ahead of the next most prodigious sponsor, General Foods—announced its withdrawal of support from 50 episodes of various (unspecified) shows two weeks before Wildmon's results were to come out. "We think the Coalition is expressing some very important and broadly held views," P&G Chairman Owen Butler explained in an L.A. speech to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Still, he criticized Wildmon's tactics and apparently plans no changes in the daytime soaps his company sponsors and produces; most are high in sexual content, but they are outside the purview of Wildmon's monitors, at least this year. Worried network executives say many sponsors are running scared this season. But advertisers have always been rigorous self-censors; they have responded for years to such traditional TV watchdogs as the National PTA.

Nevertheless, along Network Row—a short stretch of midtown Manhattan's Avenue of the Americas where ABC, CBS and NBC are headquartered—Wildmon's campaign is seen as nothing short of apocalypse now. "This is an effort of the Moral Majority to force its will on the real majority," says Gene Mater, senior vice-president for policy at CBS. "We look upon it as the greatest frontal assault on intellectual freedom this country has ever faced." Intellectual freedom may be an awkward defense for shows like Flamingo Road and The Dukes of Hazzard, but given the Wildmon criteria, as one advertising executive sees it, "you couldn't even get Macbeth on TV."

So far no programs appear to have been cut from the fall schedules that were not betrayed by their ratings, as Charlie's Angels was. But the lineup of new shows does seem to have somewhat less jiggle and bloodshed than last year's, and there is concern among TV producers that some racy pilots could be grounded before ever reaching the air for lack of sponsors. Wildmon's campaign could also undercut new scheduled programs before they have a chance to build an audience—among them a new NBC series called Love, Sidney, which stars Tony Randall as a bachelor art director living with an unwed mother. "We will write down who the sponsors of that show are," says Wildmon. "It won't be on long."

CBTV critics see in such threats the advancing specter of Big Brother; the networks fear that Wildmon's sights are set on news programming. "He's already gone after it," says Mater of CBS, citing a recent NFD newsletter that objected to a report about homosexuality on 30 Minutes, a half-hour CBS news show for young people. The same NFD missive blasted ABC's dramatization of Marilyn French's feminist novel The Women's Room. "The traditional role of the mother was ridiculed," Wildmon explains, "and every male on the show was made out to be the rear end of a mule."

Wildmon argues that his group is not trying to impose its own fundamentalist views. "Most television producers are of the Jewish perspective," he notes. "What they're doing is legal, moral and right." What Wildmon says he objects to is not sex and violence per se but "the networks' entire value system, which says that sex is something done by two snickering people who aren't married and that violence is a legitimate way to achieve your goals." He finds the networks' anxious counterattack amusing. "I'm just a little of red-neck preacher," he says with a wink. "They can't smear me, and the more they talk about me the more visible I become."

The son of a civil servant and a schoolteacher, Wildmon decided to become a minister at age 19 while a freshman at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. After coaching junior college basketball and serving two years in the Army, he entered Emory University Divinity School. When he graduated, he became a circuit preacher and then the minister of Lee Acres Methodist Church in Tupelo. It was in 1977, while he was the pastor of a larger church in nearby Southaven, that he found his current mission. Searching for something to watch on TV with his wife, Lynda, a home economics teacher, and their four children, he was appalled to find "there was nothing decent on." The rest, as they say, is history.

These days Wildmon and his family seldom turn on their set, although he says, "We had hassles about it when the kids were younger. You try to explain to children that they can't watch Little House on the Prairie because there's going to be a child rape scene."

Yet Little House has been among the high scorers on what Wildmon and his allies call "family values." Is no program wholesome enough? Two weeks ago ABC and NBC released the results of independent public opinion surveys suggesting that CBTV's standards are far more stringent than the American public's; NBC's Roper Poll found that of 16 programs deemed offensive by religious groups, only one drew criticism for excessive sex and violence from as much as 10 percent of the sample—and that was Dallas, the most popular series on television.

In defense of the public's right to its own taste, Norman Lear and others have founded a citizens' action group called People for the American Way. Their strategy will take shape as Wildmon's does, but they have already produced a series of commercials, featuring Goldie Hawn and Muhammad Ali, which extol the sanctity of free expression and dissent, never mentioning Wildmon or CBTV by name. "Most Americans believe in the Jeffersonian concept of the free marketplace of ideas," says PAW's Greg Denier. "Wildmon thinks the First Amendment means that only people who have the 'truth' are free to express it."

Still, many critics of CBTV think its influence will prove more apparent than real. "It's the Wizard of Oz strategy," says Denier. "Stir up a lot of fire and smoke to intimidate people." Just how potent a wizard Wildmon really is will be measured by the boycott he invokes this week. But he has shown already that the networks respond to public pressure—that, given a good aim, the high-rise fortresses of Network Row are just a stone's throw from Tupelo. "I may be David and they may be Goliath," he says, "but I've got my little pebble."

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