When the CBS sitcom ‘All in the Family’ debuted on CBS on Jan. 12, 1971, a sitcom disclaimer preceded the program
When’s the last time you tuned into a TV show hoping for laughs and instead found yourself reading a sitcom disclaimer?
I can’t think of any other sitcom that began that way. But 50 years ago last month, All in the Family did.
On the night of Jan. 12, 1971, nervous executives at CBS hoped such a message would prevent a backlash from angry viewers.
The disclaimer read as follows:
“The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family.’ It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are.”
Believe it or not, 50 years later, the GetTV network, which airs reruns of the series, begins some episodes of the show with that same disclaimer.
That network adds a line of its own to the disclaimer:
“We believe this original intent still holds true today and choose to air the show though it may contain offensive language.”
Was that original disclaimer necessary?
Some apparently thought so.
Normal Lear brought a level of frankness to American television to which many viewers were not accustomed. Network executives — and executives at some affiliates — worried about how the public might respond. If the sitcom disclaimer preceding the premiere wasn’t enough, there was a line of text below the title card.
For the first two seasons, right below the All in the Family title, a small line read, “Suggested for the mature audience.”
Then there was a write-up in TV Guide from the week of the premiere. The magazine highlighted upcoming shows in the form of small “Close-Up” boxes amongst the TV listings. For that premiere episode, TV Guide warned viewers about the program as well. That write-up warned the show would “explore American prejudices by looking at those of one middle-class family — if viewers can take the heat.” It warned about “plenty of abrasive language and subject matter to keep the cards and letters pouring in.”
By all accounts, those cards and letters never poured in.
In her book, Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria: The Tumultuous History of All in the Family, Donna McCorhan writes about the initial response. Ratings registered low for the first few weeks, McCorhan writes. Talk show host Merv Griffin invited stars Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton to his show to talk about the program. He would later recall taking heat from CBS about that, even though his show at that time was also a CBS show. Network executives, you see, didn’t expect the show to last past the end of the season.
The main reason for the low ratings was the show was a mid-season replacement. People were watching the shows they regularly watched. When those shows went into reruns during the spring, however, viewers sampled other shows. That’s when they found All in the Family, by then without the sitcom disclaimer.
The ratings began to grow. The rest, as they say, is television history.
For all the fuss they feared, the little sitcom disclaimer wound up being much ado about nothing…for a show still regarded as groundbreaking half a century later.