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End of line for ‘Married’

It’s the end of an era at Fox Broadcasting — the network has canceled “Married … With Children,” the longest-running comedy currently on the air and the show that put Fox on the map 10 years ago.

Fox and Columbia TriStar Television, which produces the series, had been avoiding comment on the fate of the show in hopes of reaching a deal on another season or special episodes for next year. At the same time, Columbia was shopping “Married … With Children” unsuccessfully to netlets UPN and WB, according to sources. Fox was paying about $1.5 million per episode in license fees, which may have been too high for UPN and WB.

Columbia would have been hard- pressed to lower the license fee without alienating the talent, already wary of going to another network after bouncing around the Fox schedule this year. On the syndication side, Columbia has made hundreds of millions of dollars in reruns off of the show.

Fox kept the lid so tight on the end of the series that there won’t be a traditional final episode. The last show was not taped before a live audience, so the cast didn’t even say good-bye.

For Fox, the often-raunchy “Married … With Children” was the show that proved that Rupert Murdoch’s vision for a fourth network was not crazy. It premiered in April 1987 and within a few years had turned into a major hit for the then-weblet. For some nine years it anchored Fox’s Sunday-night lineup.

Over the last few years, however, its ratings declined, and this season Fox moved it to Saturday night, where it struggled, and then moved it to Monday, where it will finish its run with an hourlong episode May 5. This season it had been averaging a 6.4 rating and 10 share, according to Nielsen.

When the show premiered, it was as the antithesis of NBC’s family-friendly “The Cosby Show.” Indeed, one title suggested at the time was “Not the Cosbys.” Besides giving Fox its first success, the series also drew the wrath of some viewers for its crudeness. Terry Rakolta, a Michigan housewife, grabbed 15 minutes of fame for vocally protesting the show and leading advertiser boycotts against the network. She made the rounds of talkshows, Congress and the FCC complaining about the anti-family values that she said Fox was promoting through “Married … With Children.”

But “Married” survived Rakolta’s rants and its ratings grew as a result of the attention she brought to the show. These days “Married … With Children” sometimes seems tame compared to newer shows, although the producers never lost the desire to push buttons.

Although the stars of the show, which include Ed O’Neill, Katey Sagal, Christina Applegate and David Faustino, were less than thrilled with the time-period changes this season, they made it a point to help the network’s promotion efforts by still appearing at affiliate meetings after all these years.

While Fox is taking a risk canceling the show, the high license fee apparently was no longer justified by the ratings performance. Fox also has almost 20 comedies in development on a schedule that at best will have five or six slots open. With that kind of money invested in development, keeping “Married … With Children” around would prove difficult.

Still, some hold the out possibility that if Fox has problems with its new comedies next season, the web could try to squeeze some more life out of “Married … With Children” by ordering additional episodes.

Neither Fox or Columbia execs commented on the cancellation of “Married … With Children.”

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