There's a Levi's commercial," notes Littleton political activist Donna Huffman, "where all of these young people are flipping through the air and sitting in a tree. It's interesting, and the effects are good, but when you watch it you think, `What am I missing here? What exactly is being sold?'"
If Huffman thinks the answer to these questions is premarital sex and random perversity, she's not telling. All she'll say is that PRIIME TIIME Today, her two-year-old organization that is starting to make a name on the Christian right, can help children and adults figure out the meanings for themselves. The group (whose name stands for Parents Responsibly Involved In Media Excellence and Teens Involved In Media Excellence Today) seeks to give viewers the skills, she says, to make them less apt to be manipulated by Hollywood's amoral media barons.
"Kids today are coming into kindergarten with an MTV mentality," Huffman claims. "They want everything to be presented to them in verse and short bursts of color and information. We need to teach them how to be discerning and how to think about the agenda of the people who are showing them things."
That line of reasoning sounds like the dogma espoused by the religious right about the godless programming beamed into American homes. And indeed, PRIIME TIIME Today has more than its share of Christian connections, including endorsements from national groups. Huffman, a former teacher now working as a freelance interior designer, is a Christian whose two children (ages ten and fifteen) attend area religious schools. Moreover, her organization has garnered praise from Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family and Denver's Rocky Mountain Family Council. It also distributes material obtained from the American Family Association (AFA), a Tupelo, Mississippi, group headed by the Reverend Donald E. Wildmon, who has spent most of the past twenty years overseeing boycotts of corporations that sponsor programming that doesn't meet his standards. The PRIIME TIIME Today board of directors includes Bob McPherson, who recently retired as pastor of the Riverside Baptist Church, and Ellen Armstrong, the wife of ultraconservative former Colorado senator William Armstrong. The Armstrongs also are boardmembers of the Christian Business Men's Committee and Campus Crusade.
Nevertheless, Huffman insists that PRIIME TIIME Today, a nonprofit group under the federal tax code, is not affiliated with any religious doctrine. "We are completely independent," she says. "If people want to label us and box us up and think that what we're talking about is not important to them, I think that would be unfortunate. This is an issue whose vitality goes well beyond the Christian community."
In 1992, when Huffman says she became concerned about the quality of TV programming, she wanted to join an established group rather than launch her own. "But I couldn't find an organization that had a really positive approach," she recalls. "There were people out there who were boycotting and writing hate letters, but that wasn't really what I wanted to do." Upon meeting Rebecca Templeman, a local resident with similar views, Huffman decided that the time had come for PRIIME TIIME Today.
Templeman subsequently moved to Texas; her PRIIME TIIME Today slot was filled by Sue Lockwood-Summers, a library-media specialist working in the Jefferson County school system. Above and beyond her job, Lockwood-Summers has been monitoring the media since the late Seventies; in 1988 she developed "The Effects of Mass Media on Children," a course that's been taught since then as part of the University of Northern Colorado's curriculum. More recently she formed an organization of her own, called Media Alert, and has written (and hopes to publish) a book about the application of critical thinking to media messages. "I don't consider us alarmist," she says of PRIIME TIIME Today. "I consider us realistic. We have an awareness of the issue, and we're trying to deal with it in the most positive way possible."
To that end, PRIIME TIIME Today doesn't compile rosters of programs it wants blacklisted. Rather, the organization publishes brochures that advise how to help kids better understand the power of television. For elementary-age youngsters, tips include turning your TV set's sound off and discussing the images, as well as turning the television toward the wall in order to analyze laugh tracks, music and sound effects. The organization also produces tablets designed for logging sponsors of particular programs. "We encourage people to write positive letters," Huffman says. "People tend to take the good stuff for granted, and when it disappears, they wonder why it's gone. We need to tell producers, advertisers and station managers what we like--and what we want."
The addresses and phone numbers for these parties are provided in The Fight Back Book, published by the AFA, which claims to have almost two million supporters and which recently inaugurated a nationwide Christian radio network. The tone of this insert is far from positive: It contains a letter from Wildmon thanking respondents to AFA's "`We Are Outraged' or `We Are Fed Up' advertisements concerning the filth that passes as entertainment today" and a section entitled "Companies Which Profit From Pornography." Those include Kmart, which the AFA has been boycotting for more than two years in part because many of Kmart's Waldenbooks outlets stock Playboy and Penthouse magazines.
Buddy Smith, the associate director of the AFA, makes no apologies for his group's in-your-face approach to pressuring advertisers. But he praises PRIIME TIIME Today's kinder, gentler tack. "We think it's an excellent, excellent approach," he says. "In our monthly AFA Journal, we mostly focus on the trash that is on, but we also encourage everyone to write to sponsors of good, wholesome programs and to thank them. We definitely believe that PRIIME TIIME Today has an idea that is very, very important, and we certainly want to do all we can to join hands with Mrs. Huffman."
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This line is parroted by Dick Rolfe, president of the Dove Foundation, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based group that endorses family movies, helps video stores design family-viewing sections and is raising funds to start a family movie channel that may run in children's hospitals from coast to coast. "Thanks to groups like PRIIME TIIME Today, network TV executives are beginning to develop some means of self-regulation," he says. "That's not censorship--just good self-restraint."
With friends like these, PRIIME TIIME Today seems on the brink of a major growth spurt. At this point the organi-zation has sold just a few hundred of its viewers' packets, while Huffman and Lockwood-Summers have spoken about "media literacy" to approximately thirty school and civic groups.
But more ambitious plans are in the offing. Lockwood-Summers is hoping to start a student essay contest focusing on TV in conjunction with at least one area school district and one or more media outlets, and Huffman is seeking a grant to fund a nationally telecast awards presentation to be made to the five corporations judged most supportive of "family-friendly" TV programming.
"People who are very well-to-do are very interested in this idea," Huffman says. "If we do this the right way, we can show people that it's a lot of fun for families to keep track of who's sponsoring who. It's a whole different way of watching