Wave goodbye to the Bundys, blue-collar champions
of the FOX network.
By Mark Lander
The New York Times, Monday, May 5, 1997
The are two pictures accompanying this article; the first is a big one of the cast, with the
caption: "Lowbrow humor was provided for the Bundys, clockwise from left: David Faustino, Katey
Sagal, Christina Applegate and Ed O'Neill."
And a smaller picture of Terry Rakolta with the caption: "Terry Rakolta persuaded some
advertisers to cancel commercials."
Now that the geyser of publicity surrounding "Ellen" has finally subsided, television viewers can
turn their attention to a milestone of a different sort: the final episode of "Married ... With
Children", which will be shown at 9 tonight on the Fox network.
"Married ... With Children", you may recall, is a situation comedy that chronicles the daily
tribulations of Al Bundy, a working stiff whose gutter mouth and gleeful cynicism made him the
antithesis of Bill Cosby when the program began in 1987. For 11 seasons, Al had spewed
good-natured venom at his garish wife, Peg, and his unruly kids, Kelly and Bud.
When the Bundys sign off tonight - after a characteristically cheesy episode that involves a
prison pen pal, a kidnapping and a wedding - it will be the end of one of the longest-running
comedies on TV. Measured by sheer longevity, "Married ... With Children" will take it's place
alongside classics like "Cheers", "M*A*S*H" and "Happy Days".
While that thought may chagrin TV pursuits, the show's significance extends beyond it's age.
"Married ... With Children" was Fox's first prime-time series, and it helped turn a long-shot
business venture by Rupert Murdoch into the nation's fourth network. With it's lowbrow humor and
unabashed celebration of blue-collar life, it also set the stage for an era of
up-from-the-trailer-park shows - everything from "The Simpsons" and "Roseanne" to "Men Behaving
"The show was a breakthrough, though not necessarily in the way that the industry likes to think
of breakthroughs," said Kathryn C. Montgomery, the president of the Centre for Media Education,
which focuses on children's programming.
Yet the most lasting legacy of "Married ... With Children" may be how well it weather the noisy
events of Marcy 1989, when a Michigan mother, Terry Rakolta, turned on the show one evening and
was outraged by what she saw. The ensuing controversy became a ratings and advertising windfall
for "Married ... With Children", and established a pattern followed by many other programs,
including last week's self-consciously provocative "Ellen."
"Married ... With Children" wasn't looking for trouble back in 1989. But Mrs Rakolta fired off
letters to the main sponsors of the show. And she persuaded several of them - including Procter &
Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Tambrands - to yank their commercials.
After her efforts were featured on the front page of The New York Times, Mrs Rakolta, who could
not be reached for this article, became an instant celebrity - embarking on the now-familiar
circuit of morning news programs, daytime talk shows and ABC's Nightline. She even started her
own pressure group, Americans for Responsible Television.
Executives at Fox defended "Married ... With Children" as a satire of the then-prevailing trend
of saccharine sitcoms, like "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties." Indeed, the co-creators of the
show, Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt, dubbed their pilot 'Not The Cosbys."
But with parents starting to worry about the erosion of standards in television programming, the
network was fearful. "Fox was a very fragile network, and we were losing a lot of money," said
Jamie Kellner, the former president of Fox who is now the president the WB network. "My first
reaction was that we were going to viewed as reckless and irresponsible."
Of course, quite the opposite happened. People tuned into "Married ... With Children" to see what
the fuss was about. The show's Neilsen ratings spiked up, and it became the first hit show on
Fox's prime-time schedule. "We should have sent Terry Rakolta roses," said Garth Ancier, the
former president of Fox's entertainment division.
Even the loss of a big sponsor like Procter & Gamble ended up benefiting Fox. Because it was a
fledgling network, Fox had sold commercial time on "Married ... With Children" at a deep
discount. After Procter & Gamble and others bolted, the network resold the slots for more money
because the ratings had increased.
History repeated itself last week on "Ellen." When ABC announced last month that the character
played by the star of the show, Ellen Degeneres, would proclaim she was a lesbian, the Rev. Jerry
Falwell and other prominent conservatives urged an advertiser boycott. Several regular sponsors
did opt to stay away - though just one, the Chrysler Corporation, explained its reasons publicly.
No matter: ABC promptly sold the time at a premium, and the ratings for that episode soared.
Indeed, in almost every respect, "Ellen" followed the path cleared by "Married ... With Children"
eight years ago. Controversial subject matters ignites public protests, which causes sponsors to
flee, which draws in more viewers, which begets more advertising revenue. What was extraordinary
in 1989 seems almost preordained in 1997.
Even programs that suffered temporarily from campaigns to put pressure on advertisers, like
Steven Bochco's "N.Y.P.D. Blue," have survived and even flourished.
Yet the end of "Married ... With Children" may augur a more unexpected change in the nature of
television. After years of increasingly tasteless programming, Mr. Ancier said he was noticing a
"backlash against harsh language, sexual situations and violence." At the WB network, where Mr.
Kellner has reassembled the team that began Fox, the watchword is family-friendly programs
between 8 and 9 P.M.
"We think the landscape has shifted too far," said Mr. Kellner, who has a 7-year-old son.
"Everybody was trying to outfox Fox. Our goal is to be the opposite of what Fox is."
Mr. Kellner even noted proudly that the WB network had received eight "green lights" for its
family-friendly programming from the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group. Fox
and NBC, he noted, received none.
If he and Terry Rakolta were on a panel these days, they would not have much to argue about.