The New York Times (Newspaper):
Front Page Article about MwC

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Thanks to Marriedaniac. Comments by Marriedaniac in [brackets].

The New York Times, 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."]

Wave goodbye to the Bundys, blue-collar champions of the FOX network.

by Mark Lander

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 Badly".

"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 Nielsen 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.

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