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‘All in the Family’ Premiered 50 Years Ago Today

by Emily Morgan
(Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago, when “All in the Family” debuted on Jan. 12, 1971, it soon became the sitcom many Americans needed, but they didn’t know it at the time. Its themes of real-life issues came as a shock to a polite, poised audience that sent shock waves through American culture. 

Before its debut, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin taped two pilots, both starring Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton in 1968. According to Lear, ABC was reluctant to commit, calling the show “too controversial.”

As a result, the show’s executives took it to CBS, which surprisingly bought it. CBS executives carefully tested the show for a long time. Six months before the debut — Variety asked CBS president Robert Wood why the network wasn’t announcing the new show. He said, “Frankly, we’re still not sure how to introduce this one to the public … it might just be best to go on with no fanfare and then prepare ourselves for the explosion.”

‘All In The Family’ Tackles Controversial Issues Of The Time

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, 1971, at 9:30 p.m., America would finally meet the Bunkers when CBS aired the first episode. 

However, despite the good intentions, viewers met the show with mixed reviews. On the day after the debut, Variety’s Tony Scott critized that it was “a one-joke show, and a sick joke at that.” He added, “It’s nothing less than an insult to any unbigoted televiewer.”

On the other hand, weekly reviewer Bill Greeley raved, “This is the best TV comedy since the original ‘The Honeymooners,'” which had aired 15 years earlier. He added that the show’s prime asset is “audacity.”

During the following summer, the show gained even more viewers since other networks were airing reruns. The first 13 episodes of the show made them unique for the moment: themes included the women’s liberation, homosexuality, unemployment, hippies, and the Nixon Administration.

The series proved it had staying power when it earned 22 Emmys and was TV’s top-rated show for five consecutive seasons.

While the show gained traction during the first part of 1971, the show was a full-blown hit when it began its second season on Sept. 18, 1971. That second season’s 24 episodes dealt with other controversial topics such as impotence, menopause, and infidelity.

Throughout the ’70s, the show reigned supreme as it topped the ratings with each passing week. Finally, the sun set on the series on May 2, 1979, as “Family” ended its ninth season on CBS.