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'Married . . . With Children' Is Breaking Up After 11 Years

April 19, 1997|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Al Bundy and family will bid farewell to America next month, as "Married . . . With Children"--the first Fox prime-time series and currently television's longest-running sitcom--ends its 11-year run.

Once Fox's top-rated program, the audience for "Married" had dropped sharply this season to about 9 million viewers each week, compared to an average 15 million just two years ago. Fox moved the program in September from Sunday night to Saturdays (where viewing levels are substantially lower), then switched the time period again to Mondays in January.

The decision to cancel the series was based on those declining ratings relative to increased production costs. Sources say Ed O'Neill--who plays the show's surly father figure, Al Bundy--received more than $500,000 per episode this season, making him one of the highest-paid performers in television.

Salaries for other cast members--who include the Bundy clan of Katey Sagal, Christina Applegate and David Faustino--also have ballooned, driving up expenses and the fee Fox pays for the right to broadcast the show.

Discussions had been ongoing until recently between Fox and the production company, Columbia TriStar Television, regarding a spinoff series or occasional specials next season. While a spinoff featuring supporting characters remains a possibility, the prospects of one next year is said to be unlikely.

"Married" will end with a one-hour episode May 5. Because the producers didn't know whether the show would return at the time that the episode was taped, the story won't bring closure to the series.

The program has also been a major success in syndication, where reruns are estimated to have thus far grossed between $400 million and $500 million.

Mocking the happy family life depicted in programs such as "The Cosby Show" (the pilot's working title, in fact, was "Not the Cosbys"), "Married . . . With Children" premiered on April 5, 1987. Ratings were initially low, but a controversy ensued in 1989 when Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta waged what became a national crusade against the show, decrying its "anti-family values."

That attention actually seemed to help promote the series and define Fox's renegade image, which grew in subsequent years with the introduction of such programs as "The Simpsons" and "Melrose Place."

Canceling the show leaves Fox with a shortage of returning comedies next season, having previously announced this will be the last year of Martin Lawrence's comedy "Martin."

Earlier this season "Married" aired its 250th episode. Only a handful of situation comedies have enjoyed longer prime-time runs, while such shows as "MASH," "Cheers" and "The Jeffersons" also ran 11 seasons.

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