The Great “Married With Children” Culture War
How an activist named Terry Rakolta tried — and failed — to convince Middle America to stop watching “Married … With Children.” She might have saved Fox.
The culture wars never really went away, but in an era when gun violence and online censorship are once again becoming hot topics in the news, now feels like a great time to discuss one of the greatest sources of controversy of the past 30 years.
The controversy-builder? Married … With Children, an edge-busting TV sitcom that predated the Streisand Effect but may have been one of its earliest examples. And it all came about thanks to a Michigan homemaker with a few ties to a political dynasty.
Let’s discuss the story of Terry Rakolta, the woman who tried, and failed, to kill Married … With Children.
“I care that there are advertisers out there paying the freight for this. They’re taking my dollars and putting them into soft-core pornography.”
— Terry Rakolta, discussing her campaign with The New York Times in a March 1989 article that happened to print on the front page. Rakolta’s concerns with the show were piqued by a third-season episode called “Her Cups Runneth Over,” which involves a caper around Peg Bundy’s favored variety of bra, which was discontinued. Al Bundy and neighbor Steve Rhodes discover the bra being sold at another lingerie shop — a story setup that very much pushed the edges of broadcast television at the time. The show, it should be noted, aired at 8:30 p.m. on a Sunday night. (For the younger folks reading, this is important.)
The story of the Family Viewing Hour, the federal government’s failed attempt to neuter prime-time TV
To understand the nature of the complaints by Rakolta, we need to go back to the 1970s, when we had just three main commercial television networks, cable and satellite television had yet to take hold, and America’s interest in maintaining its “moral fabric” was just a little bit stronger overall.
Around 1974, a year in which we lost a president to political scandal, there was a major concern about the level of sex and violence that appeared on television, and that led the federal government and the television industry to freak out about the problem at the exact same time.
Outwardly, a major network blinked first. Per a 1975 New York Times article, CBS President Arthur Taylor sent a letter to the chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters’ Television Code Review Board at the tail end of 1974, expressing concern that not enough was being done to stem the constant stream of sex and violence streaming through TV screens.
“There seems to be a deep appetite among certain segments of the public for sadism and violence. We felt the time had come to do something about that,” Taylor recalled to the Times.
Taylor — whose network was home to the megahit All in the Family, the Married … With Children of its time — was stuck between a rock and a hard place with this stance. If he rescheduled Family, an 8 p.m. Saturday show, to a different time, there was no guarantee the other networks would follow suit, and he’d essentially be sacrificing his biggest hit out of a concern for morality that wasn’t shared by his peers.
NAB, however, effectively agreed with Taylor, and the other networks reluctantly followed suit. Also supportive was FCC Chairman Richard E. Wiley, who notably served under three presidents in just three and a half years — Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
But while Taylor’s concerns may have been valid, they didn’t come out of thin air. As discovered later, Wiley met with the network heads about a month before Taylor sent his letter and criticized the “undue violence” and “fairly explicit sexual material” on the airwaves.
While the network heads claimed that the meeting had no influence on their decision per the Times article, Wiley was most definitely ready to help — in fact, he was the one who gave voice to the idea of a family-friendly TV period, in response to pressure from Congress to come up with a list of actions designed to ensure kids didn’t see offensive material on TV.
Wiley suggested the idea of devoting the first hour of prime-time programming to family-friendly fare; the NAB did him one better, suggesting that local affiliates also devote the hour before prime-time. Soon enough, the TV networks and federal government were falling over one another to censor the airwaves for two hours every night.
By early February 1975, according to a 1979 legal document, the Television Code Review Board adopted this statement:
Additionally, entertainment programming inappropriate for viewing by a general family audience should not be broadcast during the first hour of network entertainment programming in prime time and in the immediately preceding hour. In the occasional case when an entertainment program in this time period is deemed to be inappropriate for such an audience, advisories should be used to alert viewers. Advisories should also be used when programs in later prime time periods contain material that might be disturbing to significant segments of the audience.
These advisories should be presented in the audio and video form at the beginning of the program and when deemed appropriate at a later point in the program. Advisories should also be used responsibly in the promotion material in advance of the program. When using an advisory, the broadcaster should attempt to notify publishers of television program listings.
So what was the problem with this idea? Simply, the creative folks, the people who actually wrote and produced the shows, didn’t feel like they had a say in any of this. Especially not into the idea was Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family. The show’s reign as the top-ranked show on television eventually ended, in no small part, thanks to the fact that the Family Viewing Hour forced the show out of its longtime time slot.
“Basically the Family Viewing Hour is a deceit,” Lear told the Times. “It is not a sincere effort to curb excesses of any kind. If the networks were to make a sincere effort, it seems to me they would have called a series of meetings with the creative community to talk about excesses.”
(He also pointed out that kids are often awake after 9 p.m.)
Lear, with the support of the Writers’ Guild of America, West, and other artistic guilds, sued to stop the change. The legal battle laid hollow the networks’ case that the regulations were their idea. Instead, a federal court found that Wiley’s move to push the issue effectively turned the move into a de facto regulatory decision — which meant that the the move fell under the scrutiny of the First Amendment.
As a result, Federal Judge Warren J. Ferguson ruled in 1976 that Family Viewing Hour violated the First Amendment.
In his decision, he specifically criticized Wiley’s influence on the situation.
“Chairman Wiley’s actions were the direct cause of the implementation of the family viewing policy: were it not for the pressure he exerted, it would not have been adopted by any of the networks nor by the NAB,” Ferguson stated in his opinion. “The threat of regulatory action was not only a substantial factor leading to its adoption but a crucial, necessary, and indispensable cause.”
As a result, all that sex and violence could remain on the air between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Reflecting on the ruling after the fact, Wiley wrote that his goal was merely to convince the television industry to self-regulate itself.
“I believed then (as I do now) that the FCC, in the discharge of its public interest responsibilities and consistent with its authority under the Communications Act, could play a constructive and appropriate role by providing a forum for the discussion of this issue and by encouraging self-regulatory reforms by the broadcast industry,” he wrote in “Family Viewing: A Balancing of Interests,” a 1977 essay in the Journal of Communications.
Wiley, who later became a key figure in the histories of both HDTV and satellite radio, ultimately lost the battle, though, in the end, network TV did tone it down a notch in response to the controversy — for a while.
How “Married … With Children” helped Fox announce itself as an edgy new voice in television
While the Family Viewing Hour never became a lasting part of the television schedule, it did in the long run affect what networks are generally willing to air in the 8 p.m. hour.
A good example of this the long-running TGIF comedy block, ABC’s direct overture to family-friendly comedy and the thing that made Jesse Frederick an under-the-radar music superstar. While broadcast networks were not required to keep things G-rated by law, most networks did tend to go soft earlier in the evening. Even today, 8 p.m. is the domain of the family show.
This, of course, meant that, if a network completely ignored the Family Viewing Hour pseudo-precedent, it could stand out. Enter Fox.
Fox basically laughed in the face of the idea of a family-friendly hour by airing Married … With Children at 8 p.m. during its first season, and 8:30 during the two seasons after that. The show’s raunchy humor started in a edgy place and only ramped up as the show grew into an early hit for Fox.
Ed O’Neill’s greatest comic creation was very much a big part of this. Al Bundy was outwardly sexist, mean to his wife and kids, dim-witted, and pathetic. Whereas the exurban-Illinois-set Roseanne, which started airing a year and a half after Married’s spring 1987 premiere, aimed for something of a realistic image of lower-middle-class Midwestern values, the Chicago-based Married went over the top, replacing nuance with farce.
(An extremely fun fact about Married: Apparently, the show’s creators, Michael Moye and Ron Leavitt, built the show around the imagined marriage of Roseanne Barr and Sam Kinison — but neither were available, as they wanted to be film actors, not sitcom actors.)
Many of Fox’s biggest comedy hits over the next 30 years — particularly The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development, and Family Guy — have followed this rough script, with different degrees of edginess.
But of those, only Family Guy has gotten anywhere near as raunchy as “Her Cups Runneth Over.” (It faced boycotts, too — after creator Seth MacFarlane’s former school headmaster, the Rev. Richardson Schell, launched a boycott of his own, because he was upset that the Griffins had the same last name as his longtime assistant. It’s bad when your former principal is trying to ruin your life.)
The Simpsons created Fox’s reputation, but Married built Fox’s voice.
The number of advertisers Terry Rakolta wrote to in her campaign against Married … With Children. Rakolta, a Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, resident, was generally unknown on the public stage before the controversy, but she had a number of family ties to prominence. See, her sister is Ronna Romney, the former daughter-in-law of late Michigan Gov. George Romney and the former sister-in-law of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. At the time, Ronna Romney was a major player in the Michigan GOP herself, and she unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and 1996. Rakolta’s husband, John, also worked closely with Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns, and her daughter-in-law, Ronna McDaniel, is the current chair of the Republican National Committee.
Why Terry Rakolta’s campaign initially drew blood, but ultimately proved unsuccessful
Rakolta’s efforts to kill Married … With Children looked like they did the job at first, but ultimately, they made the show stronger.
Her frustration with “Her Cups Runneth Over” was not helped by the fact that Fox was still a fairly small network at the time. In a 2010 special that ran on the Biography network, it was revealed that Rakolta’s initial anger about the episode was fueled by her initial complaint to the network, which wasn’t handled by an on-staff customer complaint department, but by the writer of the episode, Marcy Vosburgh.
Vosburgh, who died in 2016, explained the idea behind the show’s approach to Rakolta: “I said, ‘We sort of take a British approach to censorship: If it’s offensive, you can always change the channel.’”
That proved the wrong thing to say to a politically connected homemaker, and Rakolta’s campaign quickly heated up. In the span of a month, multiple advertisers had written back to Rakolta, agreeing that their ads weren’t a good fit for the network. That put the pressure on the show, and led Fox to hold off a similarly controversial episode in an effort to stop the bloodletting.
(That episode, “I’ll See You in Court,” didn’t air on U.S. television until 2002, more than 13 years after Rakolta’s campaign.)
The campaign had a two-fold effect. It drew attention to Rakolta, who responded by doing things like getting interviewed by The New York Times and showing up on television, leading her to start a group called Americans for Responsible Television. Meanwhile, the controversy raised ratings for the show, at a time when Fox needed a ratings success.
The situation, certainly, put pressure on Fox, but Rakolta’s complaining actually made the show more attractive to advertisers thanks to the higher ratings. Meanwhile, Fox did something small, but important, as a concession to Rakolta: It changed the air time of the show from 8:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., ensuring that the all-important Family Viewing Hour would be safe from Al Bundy’s ultra-crass lifestyle.
In an article published in the very first issue of Entertainment Weekly in 1990, during the too-short period when Jeff Jarvis was editor-in-chief, Gene Seymour and Veronica Byrd made the case that Rakolta’s protest failed to even do much damage in the end. Rakolta says three advertisers quit the show for good; Fox only conceded just one. The time change, even though it was half an hour, made all the difference, it turns out, and it brought many advertisers back — and they were paying higher rates than before.
Soon enough, the show was drawing the highest ratings in the then-fledgling network’s history, with a holiday-themed episode bringing in a record 17 million viewers at a time when a number like that meant something. (It may have helped that the episode, guest-starring Kinison, aired immediately after “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” the very first episode of The Simpsons.)
Michael Moye, the show’s co-creator, admitted that Rakolta forced the show to ease up on some of the edgier jokes.
”Everybody (at Fox) is just a tad more nervous than they were last year,” he told the magazine. ”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.”
It helped, as well, that Rakolta eventually eased up, too.
“I’m still waiting for that fruit basket from Fox,” Rakolta told EW.
Before the Terry Rakolta incident, Fox, as a network, was at a point where its trajectory could have gone either way.
It didn’t air every night, at first. Its creative pipeline, especially in late-night, was a bit messy, and they failed miserably at taking on Johnny Carson. (They alienated Joan Rivers, then let Arsenio Hall, one of the biggest talk show hosts of his era, fall through its fingers, in favor of a concept-heavy news/variety show that wasted Conan O’Brien’s talents on warming up the audience.)
Fox was green enough that it relied on reruns of a Showtime series, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, to help fill its schedule early on.
By early 1989, the network’s stable of shows had stabilized and was decently performing, but things weren’t at a point where you could say Fox was thriving. But by complaining and getting attention for that complaining, Rakolta showed that Fox was edgy enough for the average person to care about.
It wasn’t the empire-builder — that would come later, thanks to a combination of The Simpsons and the NFL — but you could definitely say that Married’s big flare-up was the thing that ensured Fox wouldn’t end up like, say, Pax TV or UPN.
The greatest what-if in television history might be this: What if Terry Rakolta had never been offended by Married … With Children? Would we still have Fox? What would our moral standards for broadcast television be?
I’m not sure, but I will say this: There’s nothing like a moral panic to sharpen our popular culture.
Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. You’ve possibly run into one of my pieces on Motherboard, Atlas Obscura, Popular Mechanics, The Outline, or Neatorama.
This piece is adapted from a piece on Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet. Here’s the original version.