TV and the Rural Purge

It was the 1970’s and it was clear in this new decade America was changing forever. Inevitably this meant that the entertainment they sought was also changing with the national mood and providers of said entertainment would have to evolve or get left behind. One medium that had been solidified as a centerpiece in the American home was the television, as over the course of the 1960’s the amount of households with an idiot box in the living room jumped from 50% to 90%. In the seventies, a new generation of viewers were tuning in in record numbers and the Nielsen numbers did not lie that they were not watching the same down home, comfort shows their parents tuned into. This coveted 25-35 demographic was who advertisers wanted, and since they paid the bills for the networks they held the power. At this time the TV waves were dominated by CBS, ABC, and NBC so it would fall on them to lead the way in this revolution of the medium. This was a revolution which would cut down a number of fan favorite shows now revered as classics in order to make way for new shows for a younger audience in what has gone down in television history as “The Rural Purge”.

The “rural” part of the purge comes from the fact that the shows which ended up on the sacrificial altar were set either in the American South or the Old West. No doubt the names of many of these shows are familiar even to modern audiences: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Bonanza, Lassie, Petticoat Junction, Hee Haw, Mayberry RFD, and my personal favorite of the bunch Gunsmoke. These series’ began their emergence as part of a “rural revolution” in the late 1950’s. What made the Rural Purge so interesting as the earliest example of a “channel drift” was the fact that most of these shows were not ratings bombs, in fact far from it. They had viewership numbers to keep them comfortably on the air for years. The Beverly Hillbillies had been a mainstay for 9 years. Though it had concluded before the Rural Purge, The Andy Griffith Show was a staple among these rural shows for 8 years and was now succeeded by a popular spin-off in Mayberry RFD. Holding longevity records only broken in recent years by The Simpsons‘ own historic tenure, Gunsmoke had been on the air for a full two decades consisting of over 600 episodes proving the popularity Marshall Matt Dillon had with TV audiences.

While most of these shows were quite popular with massive audiences, those massive audiences had aged out of that key demographic that the advertisers wanted to market to. The way they saw it, a 63 year old watching Lassie was far less likely to buy the latest thing than a 25 year old watching MASH or Good Times. So while they may have brought big numbers in for the networks, keeping them placated was harmful to the bottom line. Ironically it was CBS, a network which now plays to an older audience as its main demographic, who led the way in the Rural Purge under the leadership of Fred Silverman and Robert Wood. The first casualty was Petticoat Junction, a show with ties to both Green Acres and Beverly Hillbillies within the greater world of the rural shows. As you may have guessed this axing was a message to the others that change was afoot, and it may not be good for them. In the place of the girls of Shady Rest was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This was a prime example for the evolving nature for how women were presented in television. Instead of three sisters helping take care of the family business and their kooky uncle, we had Mary Richards as a young career woman forging her own life path in the big city. Another prominent show CBS cutdown was Gomer Pyle USMC, a spin-off of the Andy Griffith Show, the former service station employee Gomer Pyle had joined the Marines to the chagrin of a cranky drill sergeant. The issue was that in the real military the Vietnam war was waging which the show’s writer avoided completely. A few years later, CBS would greenlight MASH a televised spin-off of the classic Robert Altman film, a military-based show which did not shy away from using the Korean War to make statements about the war in Vietnam.

As actor Pat Buttram, of Green Acres famously said “It was the year when CBS canceled everything with a tree…including Lassie“. In their place a new slate of shows emerged on the television landscape, with the likes of: The Carol Burnett Show, Kojak, MASH, The Jeffersons, The Bob Newhart Show, Sanford & Son, The Mod Squad, Good Times, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Starsky & Hutch, and Maude. Not only did these shows reflect a contemporary more recognizable to a younger and more diverse audience, but they had a slicker production value. Multi-camera set-ups became the norm and many of the sitcoms went back to the roots of the genre ala’ I Love Lucy and started filming in front of a live audience to play off that energy. While a number of legendary shows may have met their demise during the Rural Purge, it allowed a new generation of shows to emerge, many of which are now just as revered as what was cancelled.

Many pop culture experts have credited the Rural Purge as being responsible for forging the modern television landscape as a whole. The rural shows by and large focused on white characters in bland situational comedies meant purely as escapism. The new shows which took their place more reflected the reality of the world around them. All in the Family is largely credited for being the first to prove you can have a hit sitcom that was funny but still socially aware. That being said the rural shows were not done away with altogether as reruns of the cancelled shows continued to be successful in syndication where they continue to this day. In addition, NBC found a major hit in The Waltons an updated take on the previous rural formula. This is because, contrary to the beliefs of many, the Rural Purge was not about wiping out an entire genre of television, but instead diversifying what is available to viewers. Instead of casting one giant net to catch a ton of fish at once, it was about throwing out several nets to catch a variety of different fish. During this time CBS, NBC, and ABC would lean more on the numbers provided by Nielsen to figure out what demographics were watching what shows. This is a business model for television which even continues to this day in the era of streaming.