Television has the power to entertain us, to move us, but also to shock us. And it seems that some TV executives are going out of their way to be as controversial as possible in a bid to win more viewers or just to generate more headlines.
And if the number of complaints made by the public about swearing, indecency, or just plain weird behavior is anything to go by, then TV is certainly becoming more controversial than ever. Ofcom, the organization which deals with broadcasting complaints in the UK, had to deal with 16,000 cases in 2016/17.
The Federal Communications Commission, the body which regulates TV and radio in the US, received an astonishing 272,818 complaints in the second quarter of 2004 alone. Why so many? Because that was when Janet Jackson’s notorious “wardrobe malfunction” happened, while she was performing in the Super Bowl halftime show. The FCC estimated that 99% of the complaints were generated from a campaign by paragons of virtue, the Parents Television Council.
Similarly, many of the TV shows in the list below have generated multiple complaints to the television authorities, but we love them anyway! Which of these fan favorites do you find the most shocking?
15 Benefits Street
We start with a controversial show from the UK—Benefits Street, a documentary which focused on the residents of a street in Birmingham where 90% of the residents were on benefits or welfare. Although the show was a hit, attracting over 4 million viewers, it also generated a number of complaints, and some of those featured in the show received death threats and were subject to harassment from viewers who felt they were sponging off the system. It later emerged that some of those featured in the documentary had not been told about the true nature of the film and had essentially been tricked into taking part.
14 Beavis And Butt-Head
Beavis and Butt-Head was one of MTV’s most popular shows between 1993 and 1997, and it even returned for an eighth season revival in 2011. Parents were highly critical of the animated show, which they claimed encouraged juvenile and even dangerous behavior. In fact, the sniggering duo’s penchant for fire was even blamed for the death of a two-year-old girl in Ohio after her five-year-old brother watched the show and then set the family’s mobile home alight. Although, one probably has to question why a mom was allowing a five-year-old to watch such an unsuitable TV show in the first place!
13 All In The Family
First screened back in 1971, All in the Family was a successful sitcom that centered around working class bigot, Archie Bunker. Racism, s*xism, homophobia—nothing was taboo for old Archie, and his epic rants against the changing society in the US obviously struck a chord with viewers, as the show topped the Nielsen ratings for five years in a row. Despite its popularity, All in the Family couldn’t be screened today without the channel responsible facing a barrage of complaints, although many people feel that its willingness to address such hot button topics actually made a difference to the way American society perceived blacks, women, and gays.
12 Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
The precocious Honey Boo Boo and Mama June first found fame in the reality TV show Toddlers and Tiaras, set in and around the already controversial and somewhat unpalatable world of toddler beauty pageants. Their spin-off show was similarly contentious, with the 8-year-old Honey Boo Boo (real name Alan Thompson) swigging energy drinks ahead of pageants and providing endless quotable lines about the importance of money and success. Nevertheless, the show was a guilty pleasure for many TLC viewers until its sudden cancellation in 2014 amid rumors that matriarch June was dating a convicted child molester.
11 Who Wants To Marry A Multi-millionaire?
Putting regular people on our screens is always going to generate controversial television, and they don’t come more controversial than “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire.” The controversy started before the show even began, with some questioning whether Multi-Millionaire Rick Rockwell was rich enough to merit such a title. However, most of the complaints related to the exploitative nature of the show, particularly the moment when Rockwell kissed “winner” Darva Conger on stage. Unsurprisingly, given the way they met, Rockwell and Conger didn’t live happily ever after, and the marriage was annulled shortly after they returned from honeymoon.
10 Family Guy
Family Guy has a cult following, but the animated show has also attracted more than its fair share of controversy. The program was cancelled twice by Fox yet is still going strong, thanks to the support of its devoted fans. Plenty of people are not fans of the show, however, with Family Guy’s most controversial moments including a barbershop quartet telling a hospital patient that he has AIDS, Stewie, the evil mastermind baby of the family, beating Brian the dog senseless over a debt, and a song dedicated to the over-exuberance of the FCC in censoring TV shows!
9 Game Of Thrones
As one of the most successful television phenomena of all time, HBO’s Game of Thrones is clearly giving the viewing public what it wants. But that doesn’t mean that the program hasn’t also attracted several complaints, mainly relating to the extreme violence (the fight between The Mountain and The Viper was particularly gruesome), as well as the frequent and sometimes gratuitous nudity. A scene between Cersei Lannister and her brother, Jaime, generated the most complaints when it appeared that Jaime r*ped his sister in the church, as their dead son, Joffrey, lay next to them on the altar.
8 Fear Factor
Fear Factor was a game show with a difference. Screened by NBC between 2001 and 2006, and again between 2011 and 2012, contestants were challenged to take part in a series of terrifying and often downright dangerous stunts in a bid to win the $50,000 prize. In the first series, one of these stunts involved an eating challenge, including eating various live bugs, which prompted a series of complaints from the American Humane Society. In addition, several contestants were injured during the filming of the program, although oftentimes, these accidents and catastrophes only made the show more watchable.
Skins ran for six years in its native UK, but the US remake lasted for just one season in 2010-11, after pressure from the Parents Television Council forced MTV to cancel the show. In fact, the PTC described Skins as “the most dangerous show for kids ever” which some might actually see as a badge of honor! Criticism was leveled at the frequent bad language in the show, the glamorizing of underage hook-ups, drink, and drugs, as well as the violent fights between some of the characters—all of which made Skins essential viewing for many of the show’s young fans.
6 Teen Mom
Speaking of TV shows which glamorized bad TV behavior, Teen Mom was another show that incurred the wrath of the Parents Television Council. The show, which followed a number of pregnant teens as they prepared for the arrival of the babies and struggled to cope with life as a parent, was regularly watched by up to 5 million people, making it one of MTV’s most successful shows. However, many parents felt that it encouraged underage intimacy and even inspired some young women to actually go out and try to get pregnant. Naturally, this didn’t go down well with the PTC who have been very vocal about their issues with the show.
5 Married…With Children
The enormously popular sitcom Married…With Children ran for ten years on Fox between 1987 and 1997. Unlike most TV shows, which painted an idyllic picture of family life, Married…With Children went out of its way to turn this image on its head. A Michigan man led a boycott of the show in 1989, protesting scenes in which an old man had appeared wearing women’s lingerie and in which a woman had been shown taking off her bra, with just her crossed arms to protect her modesty. Despite its popularity with the public, advertisers began to desert Married…With Children, and it was finally cancelled in 1997.
4 Jerry Springer
The Jerry Springer Show is controversy personified—a chat show which somehow managed to find the most outrageous guests, with the most outrageous stories and which usually ended with the show’s burly security guards breaking up a fight. Highlights, if you can call them that, included the man who had married a horse, the mother-daughter dominatrix team, and the woman who revealed to her boyfriend that she was actually a man. Although the show has been cancelled several times in its history, it returned yet again in 2009 and is currently due to be screened on NBC until September of 2018.
MTV’s gross-out stunt show may have been laced with warnings to “not try this at home” but that didn’t stop the show from being plagued by controversy when impressionable viewers did just that. Johnny Knoxville and his crew put themselves through torture, as well as excruciating embarrassment, in the name of entertainment. But their antics were blamed for a number of deaths and serious injuries, particularly among teenage boys who were trying to replicate stunts they had seen on the show. Jackass ended in 2002, but Knoxville and his co-stars have remained a thorn in the side of decent God-fearing viewers everywhere, with their movies and TV spin-offs.
2 South Park
If you think cartoons are for kids, think again. South Park, featuring foul-mouthed schoolboys Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman, is definitely for grownups only. The show, famous for killing Kenny in every episode, has managed to garner thousands of complaints since it started broadcasting in 1997, protesting not just about the incessant swearing but also the violence, inappropriate references, and last but not least, the talking turd Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo. These complaints didn't get in the way of South Park becoming a cultural phenomenon, and creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone even made a movie featuring their beloved South Park characters.
1 That Show About The Klan...
Most people would agree that the Ku Klux Klan are bad people, or at least that they have some pretty bad ideas. Despite the fact that these are the last people who should be given a TV platform, A&E made a whole program about individuals involved in the group called “Generation KKK” and billed it as a Keeping Up With The Kardashians-style reality TV show, giving viewers a glimpse into the lives of Ku Klux Klan members. In the end, the channel was forced to change the name of the show, but even that didn’t stop plenty of people tuning in. Morbid fascination can be a powerful motivation!