By Patricia Freeman
May 22, 1989 12:00 PM

It wasn’t immediately clear that ABC’s 11th-hour cancellation of Crimes of Passion II was more than a routine programming change. First came a brief April 28 announcement that the luridly titled, “reality-based” special would be dropped from its 10 P.M. Saturday time slot the following day. That didn’t seem unusual: Some reshuffling of shows is to be expected during the spring “sweeps” period, when Nielsen ratings determine advertising rates. But when ABC disclosed three days later that the show had been dropped because it had no paid advertising, the shock waves reverberated from Hollywood to Madison Avenue. “In my 30 years in this business,” one advertising executive told reporters, “I’ve never heard of something like this happening.”

Nobody was at a loss to explain the apparent lack of sponsor interest in Crimes of Passion II, which featured what its producers call “docu-re-creations” of two stabbings, a shooting, a wife-burning and a love affair between a stepmother and stepson. “There is a sensitivity on the part of advertisers to programs of this nature,” said an ABC executive. Evidently, there was sensitivity on the part of network officials as well; two days later ABC canceled a second reality-based show, Scandals II, which had plenty of ads. While a terse written statement announced that there would be a “reexamination” of such programming, network executives claimed that neither Crimes nor Scandals would again be shown on ABC.

The producers of the ill-fated programs say they are “stunned” by the sudden turnabout, especially since the first episodes of the shows drew large audiences last year. “ABC got the show it ordered,” says Crimes spokesman Stan Rosenfield. “It’s obvious to me that the network buckled under outside pressure.”

Accepting credit for causing that queasy retreat was Rev. Donald Wildmon, a Tupelo, Miss., United Methodist minister who gave up preaching 12 years ago to heed what he interpreted as God’s call to clear the airwaves of sex and violence. Encouraged by his latest protest, which he claims persuaded Pepsi to withdraw a TV commercial featuring Madonna—whose use of religious imagery he found offensive—Wildmon, 51, has organized the Coalition of Christian Leaders for Responsible Television. The group is currently “monitoring” shows presented during the April-May sweeps period and plans to mount a one-year boycott against sponsors of programming it finds objectionable. Though the banished ABC specials weren’t mentioned in the pre-sweeps warning letters the Coalition sent to advertisers, Wildmon suspects the monitoring led to their demise. “I think ABC got converted last week,” he says. “Economically converted, I mean.”

Wildmon’s tactics aren’t new. Neither are his targets. In the mid-’70s, the Parent-Teacher Association and the American Medical Association launched a campaign against television violence. Wildmon himself has also tried and failed to organize boycotts before. But this time, according to media analysts, he has been bolstered by a groundswell of unrelated, grass-roots protest from viewers such as Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta, 44, who became an instant celebrity in March after persuading Procter & Gamble and other companies to withdraw their sponsorship of the Fox network’s Married…with Children. Though Rakolta disavows any connection with Wildmon (“He has his own mission,” she says), she has just established Americans for Responsible Television. That group plans to survey the top 100 advertisers during the next few weeks to find out what guidelines they follow when choosing what programs to sponsor.

Complaints from angry viewers about repetitive use of the word penis also prompted Ralston-Purina and Domino’s Pizza to pull their ads from NBC’s Saturday Night Live last month, and protests from nurses caused Chrysler and Sears to defect from that network’s sex-laced series Nightingales. “Advertisers aren’t in the business of advertising to receive bad press,” says John Sisk, senior vice president of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. “If they think they’re going to get adverse publicity, they pull out.”

The networks have never been more vulnerable. Faced with a dwindling share of viewers, desperate for programming after last year’s writers’ strike, encouraged by the “anything goes” atmosphere created by cable and the elimination of the networks’ own censors, they have filled their schedules with material that would never have aired in the past. “They’ve finally gone so far that they’ve energized the public,” says Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television, “and that sent a message to people like Wildmon that if you make noise now, you can get shows you don’t like off the air.”

Despite her own organization’s advocacy of educational programming, Charren is among those who lament the apparent success of Wildmon’s latest vigil. “It’s a slippery slide,” she says. “We don’t care about Crimes of Passion. We’re worried about advertisers controlling program content.”

But Wildmon says he plans to continue applying economic pressure as long as networks and advertisers continue to think with their wallets. “I’ve always tried to work through their conscience,” he says. “It just so happens that they sit on their conscience.”