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The war against 'Desperate Housewives'
Emboldened conservative groups claim victory against prurient program, but can it last?
October 21, 2004: 5:32 PM EDT
By Krysten Crawford, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - This week the new ABC smash hit "Desperate Housewives" came under fire by a leading conservative group for portraying motherhood as a "worthless chore."

Thousands of members of the American Family Association flooded five of the primetime soap's advertisers with e-mails and phone calls protesting their sponsorship of the show about despairing suburban housewives.

When two of the targets, the giant meat processor Tyson Foods and home improvement chain Lowe's Cos., publicly announced they did not approve of the dark comedy's salacious script, the American Family Association declared victory.

Leading conservative groups "are absolutely emboldened," said Fordham University professor and media expert Robin Andersen, referring to the broad anti-smut crackdown that Janet Jackson helped unleash when she flashed her breast during a live Super Bowl half-time performance.

Among the shows recently targeted for crossing the line: NBC's "Father of the Pride," " CBS's "Big Brother," and ABC's "Life As We Know It."

Do these campaigns against advertisers really work?

Short-term, media analysts say they can cost networks money and marketers unwanted publicity. The victories, however, are often short-lived.

"It's a zero-sum game" for advertisers and networks alike, said Lawrence Soley, a journalism professor at Marquette University.

Measuring the impact

Calls for advertiser or network boycotts are nothing new, dating as far back as the 1940s and 1950s when McCarthy-era activists successfully blacklisted advertisers deemed to have communist leanings.

Similar campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, linked to an increase in edgier programming, led to the cancellation of shows like the late 1970s hit comedy "Soap" or a loss of advertisers that forced networks to lower rates to draw skittish sponsors back.

But some industry watchers argue that boycotts have become far less effective as the pool of advertisers has expanded, racy shows continue to draw the young adults that marketers prize most, and networks have become adept at placating unhappy sponsors.

Another plus: media consolidation. Viacom can credit its cable-broadcast mix for helping diffuse last year's highly public dustup over "The Reagans" miniseries. Set to air on its CBS network, the four-hour drama was moved to Viacom's Showtime cable channel when critics condemned the program for being inaccurate and unfair to the 40th president and wife Nancy.

To be fair, leading groups like the American Family Association, known for its campaigns against single motherhood on "Murphy Brown" and homosexuality on "Ellen," score victories. But they appear to be isolated, limited to select advertisers, and fleeting.

Lara Mahaney, the director of corporate and entertainment affairs at the Parents Television Council, acknowledged that the impact of boycotts can be hard to measure, in part because some advertisers won't admit they caved under pressure and networks respond by toning down future scripts.

"I would have to believe that (network officials) say 'hey, we tweak this a little bit or leave this out.'" said Mahaney, "What's aired is already aired. What's in the 'can' can be changed."

A not-so desperate ABC

Don't expect ABC to lay a finger on "Desperate Housewives" anytime soon.

The Sunday night drama is one of the TV season's biggest hits. Rates for a 30-second spot having almost doubled, to about $300,000, since the network began selling commercial time on "Desperate Housewives" in May.

An ABC spokesperson said there's even a waiting list for show sponsors. Faced with its first blockbuster in years, Disney's money-losing network appears to be finally on the rebound.

This doesn't mean that the six broadcast networks -- and their parents Viacom (Research), News Corp. (Research), Disney, (Research) and Time Warner (Research) -- aren't facing big challenges that could ultimately give conservative groups what they want.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

But those threats are coming from Congress, which could soon raise indecency fines to $500,000 per violation, and the FCC, which appears more willing than ever to sock broadcasters with hefty fines for prurient programming.

Just last week the FCC proposed a $1.2 million fine against Fox for its short-lived 2003 reality TV series "Married by America." That followed a $550,000 penalty imposed on CBS in September for the Janet Jackson fiasco. And in June the federal agency slapped Clear Channel Communications, the No. 1 radio operator, with a record $1.75 million fine for The Howard Stern Show and other shock jock broadcasts.

Groups like the Parents Television Council are doing what they can to spur regulators on. Upset over the use of "bitch" and "slutty sister" on the premiere of "Father of the Pride," NBC's animated comedy about Las Vegas circus lions, the group has a ready-made formal complaint on its Web site that only requires angry viewers to fill in their personal information and then send with a simple click of their mouse.

Whether it's the government or grass-roots crusaders, conservative groups say they're confident they'll win the day.

"I don't think this is a losing battle," said Mahaney of the Parents Television Council.  Top of page

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