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Viewers Unite to Save Quality Shows

How series with low ratings can get a second chance

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In the '80s, it was "Cagney & Lacey." Early in the '90s, it was "Party of Five."

As the networks unleash their flood of new shows for the fall, viewers may find another program with low ratings worth campaigning hard enough to save.

If you discover one, however, you'll have to move fast. In today's competitive TV market, programs appear and disappear like rabbits in a magic show.

For starters, "you have to let the networks know early," says Dorothy Swanson, president of Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) in Fairfax, Va.

Ms. Swanson founded the group in 1984 after leading a viewers' campaign to keep "Cagney & Lacey" on the air despite an initial season of low ratings. Following that success, "we wanted to extend our advocacy to other quality shows," she explains.

Today, the nonprofit VQT has 2,500 members. Members take part in monthly viewer surveys, receive newsletters, and attend the group's annual convention in Los Angeles.

Viewers Voice, a similar group in Wisconsin, was established in 1991 and has about 1,000 members. "I was getting discouraged when every time I started watching a TV show, it got pulled off the air," says founder Sharon Rhode.

VQT takes credit for saving "Designing Women" back in 1986 as well as keeping "Brooklyn Bridge" and "I'll Fly Away" on the air an extra half season.

Ms. Rhode cites "Party of Five" as her group's "big success." The Fox series about five orphaned siblings is going into its fourth season with stronger ratings than ever.

The idea behind these groups is simple: Banding together gives viewers more clout than speaking out individually.

But the two groups choose their battles carefully. "We can't take on every show," Rhode says. She encourages people to write the network themselves, contact their local affiliate, and write to sponsors who advertise during the program. "After all, they are the ones paying the bill," she says.

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