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One woman's battle for quality TV

Published Sep. 10, 2005

For 16 years, Dorothy Swanson spoke for those of us without a Nielsen box.

As founder and president of the now-defunct advocacy group Viewers for Quality Television, or VQT, the Spring Hill woman gained significant media attention and galvanized up to 20,000 viewers, persuading network executives to reconsider shows including Cagney and Lacey, Designing Women, China Beach, Homefront, I'll Fly Away and The Practice.

Formerly of Fairfax, Va., Swanson published her memoirs, The Story of Viewers for Quality Television: From Grassroots to Prime Time, in October 2000 and retired soon afterward to Hernando County.

"I have always been a little arrogant," Swanson, 62, said with a bit of a smile. "But I don't think it is too much to ask television writers to talk up, not down, to their audience."

Soon after her book was published last year, Swanson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatments not only kept her from publicizing her work, but prompted her to retire and disband the group.

"The concept of the organization had run its course," said Swanson. "Sixteen years was a long time to think that our letters would really change network programming. It may have been naive, but it was something we believed in."

There is still light in her eyes when she talks about some of television's latest offerings, such as 24 and NYPD Blue. A copy of the latest TV Guide graces the coffee table in her neat-as-a-pin living room.

"For as long as VQT lasted, I was proud to amplify the voice of all those disenfranchised viewers," she said.

The group's absence brings a marked void in the television industry, said Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen, who wrote extensively about Swanson and Viewers for Quality Television.

"There is no one out there doing what they did," he said. "There is no longer a single voice out there to lobby for quality programming."

Because the group, made up of individuals with a common love for good television, was not driven by politics, VQT was unique among advocacy groups.

"They weren't concerned about bare butts or profanity or violence. Their concern was for quality, primarily in the writing. They never tried to get shows off the air, but to retain quality shows."

Among the shows the group saved from the scrap pile were the comedy Designing Women and Homefront, an ABC drama about life after World War II, Owen said. Because variables determining a program's fate are complicated, it is difficult to say what other shows the group may have saved, he said.

With forewords by journalist Linda Ellerbee and actor Dana Delany, the book documents Swanson's experiences, beginning with the successful campaign to save the television show Cagney and Lacey.

After founding the nonprofit group in 1984, Swanson went on to create the annual Quality Awards, where the stars and producers of the honored shows would attend and mingle with members, and the annual Conference on Quality Television, where Swanson would host and moderate panel discussions of television industry network executives and well-known actors, producers and writers.

Swanson began the organization at the start of "television's second golden age," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. Hourlong dramas such as Hill Street Blues and Cagney and Lacey revolutionized the format, and shows such as Cheers and Taxi took half-hour sitcoms to new heights.

It was, in fact, a fight to save Cagney and Lacey from cancellation by CBS that started Swanson's quest for quality television.

By the time the group disbanded last year, things had changed, Thompson said. Shows such as The Sopranos, Frasier and The Practice are common.

"The need for this kind of group has become less urgent because, as a rule, viewer expectation is much higher," he said. "Of course, for every show like The Sopranos, there is a show like Jackass, but the overall report card for television is so much better than it was."

Through its practice of honoring high-quality shows at its Conference on Quality Television, the VQT helped winnow television's wheat from its chaff, Thompson said.

"So often, people tend to think of television as this great, huge behemoth," he said. "But on any given night, you can find the sacred and the profane, the funny and the banal. What this group did was point out the difference. They recognized what was good and encouraged others to recognize what was good."

Published by the Syracuse University Press, Swanson's book lets readers in on some of the inner workings of the television industry _ not from perspective of a viewer.

"Hers is not the kind of book that is usually published by a university press," Thompson said. "Dorothy Swanson's personal stories make for good reading. She is an intelligent American who was engaged by good television and wanted to celebrate those she thought were meaningful and good. Through force of will, she rallied that celebration into meaningful action."

Now a volunteer with the Humane Society of Hernando County, Swanson focuses her efforts on bringing kittens to visit the residents of local nursing homes.

"I am used to accomplishment," she said. "My focus has changed, but changing the world for the better is important to me."