One year ago, a Michigan mom named Terry Rakolta made front-page headlines for her campaign against the Fox network’s rude sitcom Married… With Children.
Rakolta had complained to 42 of the show’s advertisers, and the results seemed impressive. She said she was offended by episodes like the one on Jan. 15, 1989, in which there was much talk of lingerie and vibrators. In one scene, two of the show’s principal characters watched a porno movie and then spent several minutes walking funny because of their erections.
At least a dozen advertisers indicated that they regretted appearing on the program and would have second thoughts about doing so again.
It made for a good story: One angry woman — offended by a show broadcast at a time when children might be watching — takes on a television network and wins.
The New York Times wrote about her on page 1. She even made an appearance on ABC News’ Nightline. But what a difference a year makes.
The show is as raucous as ever. The audience has grown. And advertisers are still advertising. A number of sponsors that wrote letters of support to Rakolta have continued to run commercials in Married; some could even be called heavy advertisers. In short, free speech is safe from Terry Rakolta.
Last January, Coca-Cola USA president Ira Herbert wrote Rakolta: ”I am corporately, professionally, and personally embarrassed that one of our commercials appeared in this particularly unsuitable program episode.” But since then, the company has run more than 25 commercials for its products on Married, according to Broadcast Advertisers Reports, an industry journal.
Last February, Terrence L. Murray, a senior vice president of Kimberly-Clark Corp., wrote Rakolta that the episode to which she objected ”was not within our policy and standards” and that ”there are no plans for further Kimberly-Clark Corporation advertising support for Married…With Children.” But according to Broadcast Advertisers Reports, an ad for the company’s Huggies diapers appeared last August. A Kimberly-Clark spokesman said the company had no record of that advertisement.
And last March, Frances Oda, advertising manager for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America, told Rakolta that the company had ”no plans” to advertise on Married in the future. Yet last fall, Mitsubishi was back on the show.
Why did company executives seem to agree with Rakolta, and then continue advertising?
One reason, Oda says, is that Fox, in a concession to Rakolta, changed the time slot of the series, moving it from 8:30 Sunday nights to 9. ”It made a big difference,” Oda says. Another reason, she says, is that the pressure was off. Rakolta says she doesn’t watch the show anymore and has moved on to other projects.
Rakolta says three companies withdrew permanently from the show because of her efforts last year: Tambrands Inc., the maker of Tampax; McNeil Consumer Products Co. (which yanked an ad for Medipren that was, according to the company president’s response to Rakolta, ”purchased as an oversight”); and Sandoz/Dorsey Inc. (which pulled a 15-second ad for Triaminic Nite Light).
One advertising source who did not want to be identified says last year’s controversy has left ”a bit of a cloud,” which may make some advertisers reluctant to buy time on the program, regardless of its popularity.
Fox acknowledges only one defector — Tambrands.
No doubt the network is even happier about acknowledging the program’s rising ratings. The series could even end up as a top 20 show before the year is out.
Married now dwells regularly in the middle tier of the weekly Nielsens. Granted, this is not exactly snow-leopard country. But some weeks the program has finished ahead of its Sunday-night network competition, and Nielsen figures show it regularly winning its time slot among 18- to 34-year-olds, mostly in urban areas.
Rakolta — who has since formed Americans for Responsible Television, a media watchdog organization that publishes a monthly newsletter for 2,000 subscribers — concedes that her campaign brought more publicity to Married and probably more viewers. ”I’m still waiting for that fruit basket from Fox,” she says.
The most stunning example of the show’s popularity came on Dec. 17, when Married broadcast an hour-long Christmas episode — a spoof of It’s a Wonderful Life with R-rated, heavy-metal comic Sam Kinison guest-starring as a sour-tempered angel who shows Al Bundy (played by Ed O’Neill) how much happier and sappier his family would have been if he’d never been born.
The episode scored the highest rating in the Fox network’s four-year, history, with 17 million viewers watching. It clobbered NBC’s Desperado movie, which finished second with 12 million viewers, followed by CBS’ Jill Clayburgh vehicle, Fear Stalk (11 million), and ABC’s My Brother’s Wife (10 million). In New York and Los Angeles, it was the week’s top-rated show. Nationally, it finished 13th, the first Fox show to crack Nielsen’s top 20. Making these numbers all the more remarkable is the fact that Fox has 128 affiliated stations, while ABC, CBS, and NBC all have much bigger audiences through more than 200 affiliates each.
If there was any doubt about the show’s status as an established hit, consider that O’Neill was recently the host of that indicator of relative hip, NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
At a January convention of television station executives who look for syndicated properties to put on their schedules, Married, which becomes available for syndication in fall 1991, was one of the hottest items on the shelf.
As the ratings have climbed, so have the rates charged for 30 seconds of commercial time. Last spring, a half-minute went for about $65,000. These days, the cost is $100,000 to $120,000, roughly equal to the rates on an NBC Sunday-night movie.
The show’s youthful demographics are a big attraction to advertisers. ”It’s an efficient buy for us,” Michelle Szynal, a spokeswoman for the Gillette Co., says. ”We have several brands targeted for that 18-to-34 audience, and we find that (buying time on Married) works well for us.”
Other advertisers in recent episodes have included Subaru, Coors Light, Michelob Dry, Nissan, Cover Girl makeup, and the U.S. Army Reserve.
Married remains a crude chronicle of the remarkably obnoxious Bundy family: Al; his brassy wife, Peg; smart-aleck son, Bud; and vampish daughter, Kelly. But the show’s producers say the criticism caused them to soften the edges — a bit.
”Everybody (at Fox) is just a tad more nervous than they were last year,” Married co-creator and executive producer Michael Moye says. ”We gotta kinda watch ourselves now. For instance, I seriously doubt you’ll find Al Bundy circumcised this year. We proposed it to the network and they said, ‘Uh-uh.’ So, yeah, we’re feeling the pinch.” This season has lacked the more outrageous displays of raunch that marked the first couple of seasons. There used to be much more implied nudity, the kind of shot-from-behind stuff that Rakolta found so offensive.
But the show still includes scenes like this one:
The Bundy kids give Al a powerful dog laxative. They don’t mean to (it was intended for their constipated pooch, Buck), but then, they don’t try to stop him from swallowing it, either.
”I’ve got a feeling it’s gonna be a big day for Daddy,” Al says, a dyspeptic smile illuminating his ferret face.
”The biggest, Dad,” says Bud.
”Humongous,” says Kelly.
The soundtrack of the rest of Al’s day is dominated by lots of flushes.
Obviously, most of the jokes still focus on lower portions of the anatomy and how they function. Another one:
Peg tells Kelly as Al tries, in vain, to fix a hole in the roof during a rainstorm: ”If I stopped every time your father failed, we’d never have had you or Bud.”
OK, so you won’t see circumcision on Married.
But Ron Leavitt, Married’s co-creator and executive producer, says that’s not the point. ”It’s not as if we go out and find the most outrageous thing we can do. What we’re about is very basic humor. You know, a man puts a hole in the roof of his house. What happens? He falls down. That’s what people laugh at.”
If people laugh, they watch. If they watch, advertisers advertise. OK, so it’s not what people are fighting for in Eastern Europe. But it’s still free speech. And in the case of Married…With Children, pretty funny free speech.