Engaging Culture

Dean Batali Responds: Do Studios and Networks Respond to Viewer Mail?

We had a really interesting question by a blog reader recently, responding to Karen Covell’s post on boycotting:

When groups like the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association stage a boycott, they often provide people with a template for an email that you can send to network. Do the networks really take the same email from a million different people seriously? I don’t think so.

I responded with:

THAT’S A GREAT QUESTION. My instinct tells me that the SAME e-mail or postcard from a million people doesn’t have the same impact becuase it’s obviously orchestrated. A smaller number of original letters, e-mails, or postcards, would have more impact in my opinion. But I don’t know for sure. Let’s see if we can put that question to some network or studio executives.

So I asked Dean Batali, writer and producer of “That 70’s Show” and others. His response was very interesting:

Phil:

Mass mailings and e-mail do almost nothing.
Once a standards and practices exec told me they just roll their eyes and ignore them (a “nuisance,” is how they were described, but not an effective nuisance).
But how many individually written letters does it take to have an impact?

One.

They take letters very seriously. The fact that a person took the time to craft a polite letter, and then put it in an envelope and get a stamp — it speaks volumes more than a pre-printed postcard or mass e-mail.

Personally written e-mails do have some effect, but not as much as mailed letters.
Now, there IS a way to actually orchestrate a letter writing campaign, but it has to be done extremely stealthily.

First off, networks tend to discount audience’s response in certain regions. A letter from the South objecting to certain things on TV is expected. But the same letter from New York or Seattle or San Diego makes them do a double take — it breaks their pre-conceived notions about who lives where and what they think.

So, back to the orchestrated campaign. What would be most effective is for ten or twelve people from all over the nation to actually send letters about the same issue or show at or around the same time (but not exactly on the same day). This would give the perception of nationwide concern. Also, the letters have to go to certain places (in the Act One book I mention they should go to the writers, as well as the network presidents, as well as the people in standards and practices). And they have to be polite (again, see book). And articulate. And they must NOT NOT NOT say anything resembling “I will never watch this show again…” because then, the producers will say, why bother changing anything?

In any case, I am quite passionate about this subject, since I think the Christian community has done much more harm than good, and marginalized ourselves with our methods. I wish we actually did have a strategy for all of this, because I do think we can make ourselves heard (again, see the book). It just takes more smarts than we have used in the past.

I’d love to talk more about this, and get the word out about our failed methods…
–Dean

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7 Comments

  1. Phil

    Question – If all the emails are know to come from a specific place, such as a Fallwell or Dobson type ministery, do the recievers pay attention to those because of that name brand?

    Mack

  2. Possibly.  But I think the trigger that gets their attention is anytime they receive hundreds of postcards or e-mails that all look the same.  It's an issue of "orchestration" rather than the authenticity.  Certainly the networks know they'll get the most criticism from certain organizations, but either way, it seems they probably take it more seriously when it comes from individual people.

  3. Dean,

    Thanks so much for your posting!! I fully support your approach to letters. I have been told by network execs that one hand written, personal, intelligent letter to a network is considered the opinion of 10,000 people who just didn’t bother to write a letter. And yet a pre-printed postcard or mass email is merely fuel for their already burning fires of hate toward “those fundamentalists!”

    Thanks for explaing the process so clearly and let’s hope that Christians can be willing to listen to insiders so that they can be a help and support to us and not a detriment to our work here.

    Karen Covell

  4. Then why do groups like the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association stage a boycott and provide people with a template for an email if they know the networks don't take those types of emails seriously? It's like these people are being put on a treadmill then telling them that they are actually going somewhere. Are these people suckers who send emails to the networks and donations to the PTC & AFA? Well if you act like sheep then expect to be treated like sheep by the media.

  5. The best reason I can think of for why these and other organizations do it is fundraising.  Forget the impact it might or might not have in Hollywood.  This are great fundraising gimmicks…. 🙂

  6. I had an interesting experience back in the 80's that I think is very relevant to this discussion.

    As a piano player, I was an avid reader of Keyboard magazine back in the 80's. I greatly enjoyed learning about all the new synthesizers, as well as secular keyboard players I greatly admired, such as Rick Wakeman, Chick Corea and many others. But I was disturbed by the fact that there was almost never any mention of CCM or Christian rock musicians. So I typed a letter complaining that such musicians tended to be ignored by the magazine.

    I received a letter which responded to my complaint by claiming that Keyboard magazine didn't feature articles or record reviews focusing on Christian artists because there was nothing to cover. The person who sent the reply to my initial letter correctly noted that Christian music tended to be focused on lyrics more than secular music, but the letter went on to say that as a result, there simply weren't many Christian keyboard players talented enough to deserve mention by the magazine. The letter writer made it sound as if Keyboard magazine was only interested in covering keyboard players who could be described as virtuosos.

    What the letter writer did not know was that my interest in Keyboard magazine bordered on fanaticism. I'd been buying the magazine since they published their very first issue, and I'd kept all my back issues. So I went through those issues in search of articles which would enable me to refute the claim that all people covered by the magazine were virtuosos. It wasn't hard to find such evidence. In a number of articles, the featured artist would fully admit that he or she mostly played chords behind the singing, and that he or she was not a particularly skilled keyboard player. It was clear in such cases that the person had been featured by the magazine, not because of any particularly outstanding talent as a keyboard player, but solely because that person was popular for reasons having nothing to do with virtuosity.

    (I may have also mentioned that there were some Christian keyboard players —such as Michael Omartian, Kerry Livgren, Keith Green and Andrae Crouch — who were extremely talented by anyone's standards.)

    I put together a long letter, documenting these examples, and put it in the mail. Shortly thereafter, I got a phone call from Bob Doerschuk, an editor at the magazine at that time. He told me they were putting together a new column in which guest writers would offer their opinions about a variety of issues related to music. He wanted me to write the very first article for that new column. (As it turned out, they later changed their minds and published one other article before they published mine.) The result was a full-page editorial, with my picture at the top, entitled "Wanted: Media Neutrality Toward Christian Music". As I recall, it was published in October 1985, and featured Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers) on the cover.

    In the article, I pointed out that real journalists had an obligation to be neutral, and that a magazine which was allegedly interested in covering the entire world of music involving the use of keyboard instruments ought not to overlook the substantial portion of the market represented by Christian music. Needless to say, the article contained a lot more observations which I can't repeat here due to lack of space. (Plus, I eventually gave away or lost my last copy of the magazine, to my great regret.)

    What amazed me was that at some point, the folks at Keyboard told me that hardly anyone had found reason to complain about their indifference (or hostility) towards Christian musicians. I knew that there were tons of Christian keyboard players out there. Surely I was not the only one who was bothered by their treatment of Christian musicians, was I? Apparently, I was. Or else those who were as bothered as I was just never bothered to write because they didn't think they could make a difference. How wrong they were!

    A simple well-written letter of complaint was enough to persuade the folks at Keyboard to ask me to write an article on the subject. Imagine what a difference it would make if Christian readers of the magazine throughout the U.S. regularly wrote similarly passionate and well-written letters to Keyboard to demand more coverage of Christian music! Imagine the results if Christian letter writers took a similar approach to trying to change other unacceptable instances of media bias!

    Orchestrated letter writing campaigns don't work very well, as mentioned earlier, and part of the reason is that the recipients can see that the senders haven't put much effort into sending those letters. But the right kind of letters can make a huge difference.

    If such letters aren't being sent regularly, we need to ask why. I think it's because pastors tend to cultivate a fatalistic attitude, among the people in their flock, which causes people to think there's no point in trying because the world is inherently biased against them. But experience has taught me that we can accomplish a lot more than one might think, if we'll just make the effort and rely on the Holy Spirit to guide our words.

    Mark W. Pettigrew

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