By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
For 17 years, Dorothy Swanson has waged the loneliest battle: keeping good shows on television, a medium that exists as if only to taunt her. You can hear in her voice the toll such a struggle has taken on her. Her voice breaks and softens when she speaks about the demise of the organization she founded to save shows that, in her words, enlightened, enriched, challenged, and confronted viewers. She sounds the way one does when talking about a loved one who died only days ago. She says she is retired now; others might say she surrendered.
Not so long ago, Swanson was just a fan, a fraction of a fraction of a percentage point monitored by the Nielsen ratings. She was sitting in her Michigan home flipping through the networks in search of a show she could call her own. When she found one, Cagney & Lacey, she refused to let go, even though CBS tried to take it from her. After that, it would not take Swanson long to become a thorn in the side of network executives who treat audiences as though we're buffoons to be spoon-fed pablum and tripe. Where the rest of us are content to bitch and moan when our favorite shows are canceled, Swanson took action, and if she did not quite change the face of network television, she socked it in the nose often enough to garner the appreciation of thousands of TV viewers and not a few producers, actors, and network executives.
"We did do a lot of good things," Swanson says. "We did extend the lives of some very good shows, and we made the word 'quality' mean something."
Swanson is the founder of Viewers for Quality Television--which, it should be pointed out, is not affiliated with the myriad viewers' groups that seek to censor or boycott programming they find offensive for, you know, religiousreasons. In 1983, she began writing letters to CBS programming executives, as well as Cagney & Lacey's writers and producers; hers became such an obsession, she even forged letters using the names of friends and people in alumni directories. When CBS renewed the series in September 1983, the show's producer, Barney Rosenzweig cited "the avalanche" of viewer mail received at the network.
A year later, Swanson found a partner in Donna Deen of Plano, Texas, who was launching her own campaign to save St. Elsewhere. The two formed Viewers for Quality Television, only to split when VQT began fighting to save shows, such as Designing Women, that Deen didn't believe were worthy of the "quality television" moniker.
For a while, VQT had a seat at the table of television's most powerful executives; the organization's annual conferences and awards ceremonies in Los Angeles drew the heads of every network and, often, the stars of every show endorsed by the organization. Swanson became friends with the likes of Linda Ellerbee and China Beach's Dana Delaney, who would contribute introductions to Swanson's just-published book. VQT would take out full-page ads in the trades to support worthwhile programs on their deathbeds, and every now and then, a network boss, such as NBC's Brandon Tartikoff, would even call Swanson to see whether her group would help save one of his shows. Too often, she wound up on the losing end of a fight--to this day, her biggest regret is that she could not save Tim Reid's Frank's Place--but Swanson was, for a brief moment, a powerful voice for a minority concerned only with thoughtful, carefully crafted programming.
Swanson did not want to euthanize her child and held on as long as she could; she hoped the publication of her new book, The Story of Viewers for Quality Television: From Grassroots to Prime Time, would galvanize the troops and recruit new members into the fold. But countless delays kept Syracuse University Press from publishing the book when it was originally due, some two years ago, and it did not hit stores until October. By then, she was pounding the final nail into VQT's coffin. It was far too little, way too late.
And so VQT ends with the tiniest of whimpers: After years of inundating TV critics across the country with missives about her organization's efforts to save this program or that program, Swanson mentioned the demise of VQT only in the group's fall 2000 newsletter. There would be no press release, no full-page ad in Variety, no formal farewell; the show, one might say, was canceled with no fanfare at all.
"It upsets me," Swanson says. "I wish there had been a way to go on. The book was, in my dreams, to be a resurgence. Had it even come out a year ago, it was going to be the shot in the arm that we needed, so I am a little upset with that, but there was no way to financially go on. I ended up practically out of pocket, which is the way I started the organization, and I just could not do that. To be honest, claiming 800, 900 viewers left that were participating in the organization, that cared enough about quality overall and knew where we were and stayed the course, that's not enough to stay afloat. We were just getting smaller and smaller. There was no marketing budget, there was no way to..." She pauses.