10 Most Controversial TV Shows of All Time

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Remember how your parents told you to never talk politics or religion in polite company? Well, many of the following TV shows didn’t take that advice, with a few adding taboo topics such as sex and race. Some shows are so controversial, they last only a few episodes before network executives bow to public pressure and cancel the series. Take The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, which aired on UPN in 1998. Really, someone thought it would be a good idea to air a comedy about slavery, complete with jokes about hangings, cotton picking and so-called black dialect. That show aired only four times, the same number as the 2006 NBC show The Book of Daniel, which featured a pill-popping priest.

The following shows all attracted controversy, but for the most part, managed to survive longer than a few episodes. Some shows are now legendary for their jaw-dropping moments (South Park). Others, once seen as quite controversial, now seem almost tame given the passage of time (we’re talking about you, Married … with Children).

10. Who Wants to Marry A Multi-Millionaire (2000)

Fox canceled the show Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire after one airing.

Photo credit: © Fox, Fair Use

The one anomaly on this list, Who Wants … was supposed to be a recurring social experiment of sorts, where 50 women — one hailing from each state — participated in a Miss America-like contest to win the heart of a “multi-millionaire” who they could not see (his face was hidden behind a silhouette). Of course, Mr. McDuck (AKA 42-year-old real estate developer Rick Rockwell) could see all his prospects. His chosen one was 34-year-old nurse Darva Conger. Though more than 20 million people watched the first and only episode of this strange beauty contest, the public outcry was so great that Fox cancelled not only future episodes, but repeats of that episode. Further, it was later discovered that Rockwell was worth a couple million at best, and had a history of violence with his former partner. Needless to say, the “marriage” pretty much crashed before it even started.

 

9. Soap (1977-1981)

Soap sparked controversy even before the first episode aired.

Cast of Soap in 1977

This satire of the soap operas so popular during the 1970s never quite recovered from the negative press surrounding it before the first episode even aired. A Newsweek reviewer, who had never seen the pilot, wrongly referenced a storyline involving a Catholic priest being seduced in a confessional. Both Baptists and Catholics went into full-blown boycott mode against sponsors of the show. It worked. There were so few advertisers that spots had to be heavily discounted. The show managed to survive four seasons, even developing strong ratings stateside and a loyal following overseas. Still, Soap’s initial bad PR — combined with its bravery in taking on sensational topics like alien abduction, demonic possession, murder and kidnappings — resulted in ABC affiliates being picketed, and succumbing to the pressure of either not running the show or moving it to a less desirable time slot. Soap may be best remembered today for helping launch the career of a 20-something comic named Billy Crystal.

 

8. The Jerry Springer Show (1991-Present)

Jerry Springer's controversial TV show is still running after 21 seasons.

Jerry Springer taping his 20th anniversary show in Times Square; © Mira Agron/Dreamstime.com

We can’t run a “controversial TV shows” list without mentioning Springer. Once deemed the “Worst TV Show Ever” by TV Guide, how many programs can say they’ve made it 21 seasons, or more than 3,600 episodes? This may be a sign of the end times, but we have only former Cincinnati Mayor Springer — and our own lack of taste — to blame. Name something that isn’t controversial about this show. Everything from the inevitable on-stage fights, to the topics that have included transsexuals, infidelity, midget fighting, stripping or some combination thereof is ready-made for controversy … and a huge TV hit.

 

7. Fear Factor (2001-2006; 2011-Present)

Fear Factor's gross-out stunts have made it a frequent target of critics.

© NBC, Fair Use

The reality show that refuses to go away recently made it into the headlines again, when NBC decided to pull an episode featuring contestants drinking donkey semen with a urine chaser … for a chance to win $50,000. Over the past 11 years, Americans have been showing just how low they will stoop to win 50K. As evidenced by previous episodes, for that kind of money some gutsy/desperate/unhinged types will devour pizza topped with cow bile, fish eyes and red worms; blanket themselves with giant hissing roaches and flesh-eating worms; or eat a dozen live spiders with such large tentacles that they resemble crabs. The very nature of these gross-out stunts almost demands that, at some point, its methods will be questioned or some group (like the American Humane Association) will boycott it. Though it was the first reality show to be put in syndication, another reality show that involved talents transcending eating animal innards — American Idol — killed Fear Factor’s first run in 2006.

 

6. Married … With Children (1987-1997)

Married With Children seemed very controversial in its early days, not so much later on.

© Fox, Fair Use

Married’s producers developed a series that mocked the wholesome, successful family shows so popular in the 1980s. The Bundys were the anti-Cosby family, featuring cynical shoe salesman, Al, his over-the-top wife, Peggy, a bimbo daughter, Kelly, and awkward loser-in-love son, Bud. In its early years, the comedy took on topics like menstrual cycles and sexual fetishes, which seems quaint by today’s standards, but it had Fox’s network censors in a tizzy at the time. During the course of its 11 seasons, Married also earned criticism for everything from its perceived exploitation of women to stereotypes involving the poor. By the end of its run in the late 1990s, the show had helped to put Fox on the map, but its storylines no longer seemed so shocking. It continues to have a second successful life in syndication.

 

5. All in the Family (1971-1979)

All in the Family featured some previously taboo topics, such as race, when it first aired.

All in the Family Cast, 1976

This is the show that’s widely regarded as “starting it all.” Courtesy of “loveable bigot,” Archie Bunker, the CBS program took on formerly taboo topics such as racism, homosexuality, rape and abortion. Archie’s daughter, Gloria, often found herself caught in the middle of fights between the conservative blowhard and his hippie son-in-law, Michael. Then there was Edith, who stood by hubby Archie no matter how small-minded his views (and no matter how many times he called her “dingbat”). If you had never heard racial epitaphs or heated discussions about abortion on television before, you can imagine how shocking it would be. But instead of forever being silenced like later shows, All in the Family went on to spin off several programs, including The Jeffersons and Good Times.

 

4. The Howard Stern Radio Show (1998-2001)

Howard Stern's popular radio showed bombed when it moved to CBS.

Photo credit: Silent K

When you think CBS, you probably think CSI before you think strippers and drunken midgets. But in the late 1990s, someone at the network thought that bringing The Howard Stern Radio Show to a major network would be a good idea. Needless to say, stunts that included setting up grandfathers with ladies of the night didn’t go over well with the general public and, in turn, advertisers.

 

3. South Park (1997-Present)

South Park has aired many controversial episodes through the years.

Photo credit: © SouthParkStudios.com

It’s reassuring to know that, in an era where nothing seems to shock us anymore, there will always be South Park, with each new episode resulting in some viewer shaking his/her head and exclaiming, “No — they did not just say that!” For the past 15 years, this animated sitcom has been pushing that envelope with its string of uncensored S-bombs, its highly sensitive topics (i.e. the likeness of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin with a stingray barb in his chest weeks after his death) and its vomit-inducing animation involving a life-size turd and, well, often-times vomit. One of its most controversial episodes, Trapped in the Closet, took on Scientology. That 2005 episode also took a swipe at the sexuality of two of Scientology’s leading men, Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Another prominent Scientologist, Isaac Hayes, who spent nine years on South Park as the voice of “Chef,” resigned in protest.

 

2. MTV, Multiple Shows (1981-Present)

Shows such as Beavis and Butt-Head made MTV synonymous with controversy.

Photo credit: © Mike Judge

Even back in the day when the network’s name really did match up to its programming (you know, when it used to run music videos), it was not immune from controversy. Beavis and Butt-Head came under scrutiny when their propensity to play with fire was linked to real-life cases of kids burning down homes and even deaths. In later years, the stunt show Jackass was blamed for youths being injured or killed after recreating stunts at home. Most recently, the show Teen Mom has been criticized for “glamorizing” teenage pregnancy, while the U.S. adaptation of the UK series Skins was cancelled after one season due to viewer protests over its risqué sexual content. So it seems with the many questionable reality shows on its network, MTV often must face the music (even though it no longer plays it).

 

1. Saturday Night Live (1975-Present)

Saturday Night Live has been the target of many protests through the years.

Photo credit: @ NBC, Fair Use

For nearly 40 years, we’ve been hearing, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” And though the sketch comedy and variety show’s popularity seems to ebb and flow with the cast itself, there’s no doubt that SNL was among the first to broach some tough subjects. We need only look to Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, which involved giving a big middle finger to the Reagan administration regarding the racial divide or, more recently, a bailout skit that lambasted everyone from naïve homeowners, to subprime lenders, to President Bush and the Democrats for their roles in the mortgage meltdown. And we haven’t even mentioned the special guests! Who can forget the 1992 episode when Sinead O’Connor’s ripped up a photo of the Pope live and unbeknownst to the SNL team? Much more recently, many Christians were upset following a skit that featured cast members portraying Jesus and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, with the Jesus figure telling Tebow to “tone it down a notch.”

Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.

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