Married . . . With Controversy : Viewers Can --and Should--Make a Difference : <i> Commentary</i>

Times Television Critic

It could have been worse for Fox. “Married . . . With Children” could have offended Khomeini.

As it is, Terry Rakolta’s condemnation of Fox Broadcasting’s most popular series--a coarse, offbeat, unevenly funny comedy about a combative working-class family that makes Roseanne’s look like Ozzie and Harriet’s--is one of those good news/bad news affairs.

Good news:

Rakolta is proving that viewers can make a difference. In this case, one viewer--a Detroit-area woman who found the brazenness of “Married . . . With Children” so offensive that she aggressively took her case against the series to its advertisers. And, incredibly, they responded.


Bad news:

Although Rakolta maintains her act is merely a protest and not a call for a sponsor boycott, in some cases only a narrow fissure separates dissidence from censorship. And sure as sweeps, others will attempt to use Rakolta’s case to make the crossover and impose their own will on the majority of viewers.

Married . . . with children herself, Rakolta finds that the Sunday night series “exploits women . . . stereotypes poor people” and “has gratuitous sex . . . and very anti-family values.” In other words, it’s in the prime-time mainstream.

While respecting Rakolta’s right to subjectivity, it’s arguable that she is missing the big picture. Entertainment TV exploits and stereotypes most everybody most of the time, and gratuitous sex--and violence--are endemic to the small screen in this era of broadcast deregulation.


As for anti-family shows, Rakolta’s simply riding the wrong horse. The real anti-family shows are the mass of sitcoms depicting families as bland and idiotic.

Yet Rakolta’s letter-writing campaign has had amazing results. One sponsor has withdrawn a commercial from the series and several other companies are reevaluating sponsorship.

The response to Rakolta has not occurred in a vacuum. It comes at a time when the boycott-advocating Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Assn. (formerly the National Federation for Decency) and the Christian Leaders for Responsible TV have stepped up their own protest-letter crusades in hopes of changing the face of TV.

“And when she writes letters in the midst of all of that, the sponsors become more sensitive to it,” said Kathryn Montgomery, author of “Target: Prime Time,” a recently published book on the impact of advocacy groups on entertainment TV.

Although Fox says “Married . . . With Children” is still sold out for the remainder of the season, at least Rakolta has had an effect.

In principle, bravo.

Viewers should respond. They should let the appropriate parties know what they dislike--or like--about television. That applies across the board: from production values to content, from music and staging to racism, anti-Semitism or any of the other “isms” that demean and oppress various segments of society.

Better viewers be activist than passivist. Better we view critically than apathetically. Better we control television than vice versa.


It’s not always enough, as some suggest, to merely turn off the set or switch channels if we’re displeased. If it’s blacks depicted as little Sambos on the public airwaves, should the channel selector be our only vehicle for protest? If it’s clerics depicted only as thieves and hypocrites, do we turn the other cheek? If we see drugs or drunkenness glamorized, do we show our disgust by switching to a basketball game? Of course not. Write letters. Make calls. Do something .

Television is not an obscure island that can be bypassed if we don’t like what it offers. It’s too pervasive and influential for that. It helps shape and define a culture in which we all have a stake even if we’re not personally in front of the set. While we’re dozing, others are watching. We can ignore the messenger, but somewhere, sometime, the message will catch up with us.

Inevitably, Rakolta has also helped “Married . . . With Children” by drenching in publicity a series that previously had been but a small ripple in the vast ocean of prime time. And in doing so, she has touched off another mini-debate about TV standards.

As if the TV of today happened overnight.

TV standards rise and fall like the stock market, with the 1980s being an extended version of the Crash of 1929. Liberated from responsibility by a deregulation-minded Federal Communications Commission, broadcasting has sunk lower and lower in trying to win back viewers and meet the challenge of cable and video explosion. NBC movies? Morton Downey Jr.? It’s getting hard to tell the bottom of the barrel from the bottom.

The disease is contagious, extending even to some of prime time’s best work. On Thursday’s episode of NBC’s funny hit comedy “Dear John,” for example, a non-regular character came on to Kate by surprising her unclothed. Through tactful camera work, viewers saw him as nude except for an area barely larger than a fig leaf. It was shocking less because he was in the buff than because the purpose seemed to be shock.

“There’s been a general decline of standards in all of broadcast television,” said Montgomery, an assistant professor of film and television at UCLA. “Part of the reason has to do with deregulation. The government, through the FCC, has given a clear message that the public doesn’t matter any more.”

Montgomery cites the cutting back of their standards-and-practices units has one example of the networks’ response. “They look at what they can cut and what is expendable, so they cut the protective mechanisms. So they’re aren’t as many checks and balances as there were before.”


You might call this Married . . . to Deregulation.

The purpose is to let the marketplace decide. “Now,” said Montgomery, “we see what the marketplace produces.”