One evening just before Christmas 1976, The Rev. Donald Wildmon and his family settled down in their Tupelo, Miss, home for an evening of TV. The set had barely warmed up when the dialogue turned hot—”Tell the son of a bitch I don’t give a damn”—and Wildmon, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in nearby Southaven, switched the channel. On came a torrid love scene between two rapturously consenting adults who were married, but not to each other. Click again, this time to a mystery drama in which the hero, lashed to a table, was being tortured with a claw hammer. Thoroughly outraged, the minister turned the TV off—over the protests of his four children. “It was just too much,” he recalls. “It made me mad. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to take it anymore without fighting back.’ ”
Thus began one man’s crusade against prurient TV, or at least his notion of it. The next Sunday Wildmon asked his 550 parishioners to join him in a week-long boycott of programs that peddle “excessive and gratuitous” sex, profanity, violence and alcohol consumption—and of their sponsors’ products. Shortly after the first boycott in March 1977, Wildmon resigned his pastorate (he remains a Methodist minister), incorporated his nonprofit movement as the National Federation for Decency and made its work his full-time preoccupation. Since then he has signed up more than 3,000 subscribers (at dues of $10 a year) and organized 250 groups in a dozen cities nationwide. They monitor shows for the NFD newsletter, which has a mailing list of 10,000 PTAs, church groups and individuals. The monitors keep a vigil not only for offensive shows but for suggestive commercials as well—such as the spot in which a husky-voiced blonde says, “All my men wear English Leather…or they wear nothing at all.”
Wildmon’s campaign is aimed primarily at networks and sponsors and, with its roster of top-rated programs, ABC has been its chief target. Special objection has been taken in NFD newsletters to Soap, Three’s Company, Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Charlie’s Angels (for 23 bosomy “jiggle scenes” in a single episode, according to one NFD monitor). “We ask our members to write the sponsors,” says Wildmon. “We don’t mess around with the FCC or the government. If you want to change TV, you change it through the pocketbook.”
If, that is, his own pocketbook holds out that long. Wildmon, 40, has traded his $16,100-a-year salary as a preacher for $9,000 as the NFD’s director (though he still gets more than $10,000 a year in royalties on the 17 religious books he has written). Wife Lynda, 38, went back to work this fall as a home economics teacher to help out, but the Wildmons have spent their entire savings—$5,000—on living expenses.
But “money isn’t what I’m in this for,” Wildmon insists, foreseeing a battle of perhaps 15 years ahead of him. Indeed, his group’s pickets around 30 ABC affiliates last month drew limited publicity, and this month’s boycott of all ABC programs has had no apparent effect on ratings so far. Wildmon claims his pressure tactics have persuaded several top advertisers to “clean up their act”—among them Ford Motor Co., Sears and Campbell’s Soup. The networks are maintaining a lofty indifference.
“A lot of people think I’m a red-neck Mississippi preacher who wants to wipe everything off TV but The Waltons, but that’s not true,” says Wildmon. A minister since the age of 19, he was in fact a rising star in the Methodist hierarchy before realizing his “Christian obligation” to form the NFD. “Television is a medium that has the potential to be one of the most constructive forces in history,” he says, “and it’s going to the gutter.” What of those who argue that a few thousand people should not dictate to a nation? “I believe the NFD represents millions of Americans who haven’t been awakened yet to what is going on,” he says. “I don’t want trash piped into my home, and I don’t think they do either.”