Mary Dixon

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–When U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell presented a Senate bill to the House of Representatives in March that would make it mandatory for health officials to test DNA samples from rape victims within 10 days of receiving them, the Washington state Democrat had an entire television network behind her.

Using an online petition, Lifetime Television had collected thousands of signatures in favor of pushing the Debbie Smith Act through Congress. Although the legislation is stalled, the campaign is an example of how cable television networks are using their long on-air and Internet reach to gather supporters for advocacy projects of special interest to their audiences.

In the last three years, Lifetime has made women’s advocacy campaigns a priority. Through its public advocacy work, the network has raised public and government awareness for heart disease among women and fought against so-called “drive-through mastectomies.” It also lobbied for stricter sentencing for criminals who engage in video voyeurism, in which the perpetrator spies on another person using a video camera hidden in the victim’s home. Network officials say their most recent campaign, “Our Lifetime Commitment: Stop Violence Against Women,” reached more than 84 million people through made-for-TV movies, on-air public service announcements and the Internet.

Law Would Fund More Hospital Examiners, Standardized Rape Kits

Lifetime became the key media player in placing the Debbie Smith Act on Congress’ agenda early last March, when hundreds of advocates and network executives descended on Capitol Hill to demand that laws protecting women from violent crime become a priority in Washington. The bill is named for a Virginia woman who was raped in the woods outside her home in 1989. After doctors collected DNA samples from her body, the evidence sat on lab shelves for six years before it was analyzed, leaving Smith’s attacker a free man until he was imprisoned in 1995.

Supporters of the bill are asking also for $250 million to fund comprehensive training for hospital examiners working with rape victims and for the production of standardized DNA evidence-collection kits.

Mary Dixon, vice president of public affairs at Lifetime, said that she was pleased to take part in an initiative to end violence against women.

“Lifetime is in the trenches to get this legislation passed,” Dixon said. “We just can’t let 500,000 rape kits sit on shelves while rapists are roaming free. We’re committed to this cause.”

Nearly 300,000 rapes are reported in the United States each year, but only one in four results in conviction, according to the nonprofit Stop Family Violence. Another 600,000 rapes go unreported, most commonly because the victim doesn’t believe the attack will be prosecuted, the group says. And as long as evidence sits on the shelf, proponents of the bill say, these victims are mostly correct in their beliefs.

“What it could save us in terms of expediting law enforcement and giving rape survivors a peace of mind is worth so much more,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who supports the bill.

Lifetime is not the only network in the public awareness-raising arena. Oxygen Media, a cable outlet for women, has also run its own online and on-air public service campaigns, as has the Public Broadcasting Service.

But the forerunner for these campaigns was MTV, which pioneered television network advocacy with its 1990 “Rock the Vote” campaign to get voters to the polls. Since then the network has run anti-drug campaigns, fought against racism and discrimination, and most recently created an on-air and online campaign against hate crimes, urging viewers to ask lawmakers to address the issue with congressional legislation.

Dixon cites Lifetime’s current chief executive officer, Carole Black, for the network’s focused and hands-on approach to defending women’s rights and causes.

“Three years ago Black helped us focus on Lifetime’s mission: to entertain, inform and support important women’s issues. We take that responsibility seriously,” Dixon said.

Oxygen Encourages Support for Women’s Election Campaigns

Dixon says such efforts distinguish Lifetime’s campaigns from those at other cable networks. The latest campaign at Oxygen, “Choose to Lead,” highlights the contributions of women leaders and encourages support for women running for elected office.

Oxygen officials would agree; they do not characterize Oxygen’s effort as a public-policy initiative.

“We’re trying to become a platform for women to raise their own issues and we want to try to stay objective with our causes,” said Michael Wade, executive director of Oxygen’s advocacy department.

Cable companies appear to have more freedom in running public policy campaigns than networks. Rarely do television networks endorse public causes, said Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor of professional practice and director of the Online Journalism Awards at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. When the major network news anchors donned American flag pins after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they were criticized for alleged bias.

“Nobody wants to do anything that would offend advertisers,” Sreenivasan said. “At one time crusading journalists and networks offering on-air opinions were not unusual, but not anymore.”

Sreenivasan also is skeptical of online petitions that networks such as Lifetime use to generate support for specific public policy proposals.

“Anyone can build an online petition . . . They have petitions for everything these days,” Sreenivasan said. “I don’t know if e-petitions actually change anything or have any influence in Washington.”

Susan Howley, public policy director for the National Center for Victims of Crime, says they do.

Online petitions “are a great way for the average citizen to take an active part in public policy issues,” said Howley, who hopes that Congress will pass the Debbie Smith Act sometime this year. “We have participated in e-mail lists to Congress and I think if you cannot make a personal phone call or write a letter, which may be a stronger way to follow up, signing an e-mail petition is definitely worth the effort,” she said. “We tell our advocates that ‘whatever you can do helps.'”

Dixon maintains that Lifetime’s petitions have done a lot to ensure legislative protection for women’s health and safety.

“Since our online petition for the Debbie Smith Act began, we’ve raised easily tens of thousands of signatures,” Dixon said. “And our campaign against drive-through mastectomies received 5 million signatures. It works.”

Maya Dollarhide is a freelance journalist based in New York.

For more information:

Lifetime Television for Women:

Petition at:

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: