The "rural purge" of American television networks (in particular CBS) was a series of cancellations between 1969 and 1972 of still popular rural-themed shows with demographically skewed audiences, the majority of which occurred at the end of the 1970–71 television season.
Starting with The Real McCoys, a 1957 ABC program, US television had undergone a "rural revolution", a shift towards situation comedies featuring "naïve but noble 'rubes' from deep in the American heartland". CBS was the network most associated with the trend, with series such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, and Hee Haw. CBS aired so many of these rural-themed shows (many of which were produced by Filmways) that it gained the nickname the "Country Broadcasting System."
By the late 1960s, ...many viewers, especially young ones, were rejecting [rural-themed] shows as irrelevant to modern times. Mayberry's total isolation from contemporary problems was part of its appeal, but more than a decade of media coverage of the civil rights movement had brought about a change in the popular image of the small Southern town. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., was set on a U.S. Marine base between 1964 and 1969, but neither Gomer nor any of his fellow soldiers ever mentioned the war in Vietnam. CBS executives, afraid of losing the lucrative youth demographic, purged their schedule of hit shows that were drawing huge but older-skewing audiences.
Although the purge of rural programming began in 1970, it was foreshadowed a few years earlier. In 1967, CBS ordered a mass cancellation of the network's remaining panel game shows: What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth. The programs were still extremely profitable (mainly because of their low budget) but performed poorly in demographics. The network had attempted to branch out into more urban programming, particularly with the innovative sitcom He & She in the 1967 season, but a clash with that show's lead-in (Green Acres) led to its cancellation; as a foreshadowing of things to come, He & She would be re-aired in reruns in summer 1970, just before the purge began.
The purge was instigated by CBS executive Robert Wood who replaced longtime CBS programming head Mike Dann with Fred Silverman, following research highlighting the greater attraction to advertisers of the younger urban viewer demographic. Their lack of relevance was referred to in Gil Scott-Heron's 1970 spoken-word piece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which alludes to at least seven of the shows that are eventually cancelled as part of the purge, mentioning that as part of the titular revolution, the shows "will no longer be so damned relevant". Another factor in the purge was the loss of a half-hour of prime time programming each night as a result of the Prime Time Access Rule, which took effect in 1971; as a result of the new rule, the networks (all of which had started prime time at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time before the rule took effect) had to trim the equivalent of seven half-hour programs from their weekly schedules and give them back to the local stations.
The numerous cancellations prompted Pat Buttram ("Mr. Haney" on one of the cancelled shows, Green Acres) to make the observation: "It was the year CBS cancelled everything with a tree—including Lassie".
The first rural-themed show cancelled by Silverman was Petticoat Junction in 1970. In September 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered on CBS. All in the Family premiered in January 1971 as a midseason replacement. Both series provided the urban demographic, cutting-edge social relevance, and ratings that CBS sought. These ratings successes prompted Silverman and the network to cancel Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D., Hee Haw, Lassie, and The Jim Nabors Hour at the end of the 1970–71 season. Another series, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, lasted until the end of the 1971–72 season.
ABC also was looking for younger audiences, and in May 1971 cancelled shows that skewed toward rural viewers (such as The Johnny Cash Show) or older viewers (Make Room for Granddaddy and The Lawrence Welk Show). NBC also targeted rural- and older-oriented programs in its cuts, eliminating long-running programs such as Wild Kingdom, The Andy Williams Show and The Virginian, all of which ran nine seasons or more.
Popularity of cancelled shows
Syndication proved to be a haven for many of the cancelled programs. Welk's program, a mainstay of television since the early 1950s, immediately moved to first-run syndication, where it enjoyed an additional 11 years before Welk's retirement in 1982. Reruns of the show began almost immediately afterward, and continue to this day on PBS. Wild Kingdom, Lassie, and Hee-Haw also continued in first-run syndication after their cancellations in 1971. Lassie ran until 1973, while Hee-Haw had even greater success, lasting until 1991. (The timing of Hee Haw and Welk entering syndication was particularly opportune; along with the urban-oriented Soul Train that entered syndication the same year, these music-oriented niche programs became very popular throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.) Wild Kingdom primarily aired reruns, but continued to produce occasional new episodes in syndication through 1987.
Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was the first of the rural-based shows to leave the air. However, this was not due to its rural theme, but instead to Jim Nabors's desire to move to something else – "reach for another rung on the ladder, either up or down." He was given a new show, The Jim Nabors Hour, as a replacement for the next season. Mayberry R.F.D., itself a direct continuation of The Andy Griffith Show (from which Gomer Pyle had spun off) finished number 4 for the year and was renewed for two more seasons. The first of the cancellations was The Red Skelton Show, which had finished the 1969–70 season as the number 7 show when axed by CBS. The show's move back to NBC and its altered format drew away its viewership, thus it fell out of the top 30 by the end of the 1970–71 season. Petticoat Junction is another series often cited in the purge, but that show was already in decline (due in part to the death of star Bea Benaderet in 1968) by the time it was canceled in 1970. The success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and newer more urbane variety shows such as The Flip Wilson Show and The Carol Burnett Show in 1970 would allow for the mass cancellations of most of the now "undesired shows" at the end of 1971 despite their high ratings and popularity. Both Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies had dropped from the Nielsen top 30 by the 1970–71 season, yet both shows continued to win their respective time slots and had a loyal following, warranting renewal for another season. Other shows still pulling in even higher ratings when cancelled included Mayberry R.F.D., which finished the season at number 15, Hee Haw at number 16, and The Jim Nabors Hour at number 29. Nevertheless, the course had been set by the networks and the shows were cancelled to free up the schedules for newer shows.
The inclusion of demographics into determining a series' worth to its sponsors meant high ratings alone did not necessarily warrant a series for renewal. Series such as ABC's The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family were never truly ratings hits; however, both series appealed to a younger demographic and thus were renewed for three more seasons.
Silverman replaced much of the cancelled programming in 1971 and 1972 with "relevant" fare. Following All in the Family were its many spinoffs including Maude and The Jeffersons. Following the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the series' production company MTM Productions would develop the popular The Bob Newhart Show. M*A*S*H was added to the network in 1972, remaining constantly in the top 15 of shows for the next 11 seasons.
An unusual side effect of the rural purge was the temporary demise of the laugh track. Most of the rural-oriented programs were filmed in the single-camera setup without a studio audience, with the canned laughter added by laugh-track proprietor Charley Douglass. The newer shows that came to television in the early 1970s were multiple-camera setups with live studio audiences, a trend that would become the norm throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with Douglass' laugh track mostly limited to sweetening.
Under Silverman's watch, game shows returned to the network's daytime schedule during this period, as well (unlike NBC or ABC, CBS had not carried a daytime game show since To Tell the Truth ended its run in 1968, instead opting for reruns of 1960s prime-time sitcoms such as The Lucy Show and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., both of which had left the air by that point). Among the first group of game shows in 1972 was a revival of The Price Is Right, which debuted in September 1972. Gambit and The Joker's Wild, the latter created by formerly disgraced game show producer and host Jack Barry, would also debut the same day and have relatively long runs.
Despite the relatively large number of "old guard" variety shows cancelled in the purge, Fred Silverman would actually continue to create new variety shows to replace the ones he cancelled; one of the first was The Sonny & Cher Show, which debuted in February 1971. Silverman would later commission Donny & Marie for ABC five years later. He would also, with far less success, commission The Brady Bunch Hour for ABC in 1976 and Pink Lady and Jeff and "The Susan Anton Show" for NBC in 1980, series that were extremely poorly received.
Several members of Congress expressed displeasure at some of the replacement shows, many of which (especially the more socially conscious shows such as All in the Family) were not particularly family-friendly. The backlash from the purge prompted CBS to commission, perhaps somewhat facetiously, a rural family drama for its fall 1972 schedule, but the network scheduled it in what it thought would be a death slot against popular series The Flip Wilson Show and The Mod Squad, allegedly hoping the show would underperform and head to a quick cancellation. Instead, The Waltons went on to run for nine seasons, reaching as high as second in the Nielsens and finishing in the top thirty shows for seven of its nine years on air.
Nonrural-themed shows cancelled by CBS included sitcoms Family Affair and Hogan's Heroes in 1971, with the long-running My Three Sons ending in 1972. Variety shows that had been around since the late 1940s and early 1950s, such as The Jackie Gleason Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, were cancelled in 1970 and 1971, respectively; likewise, The Original Amateur Hour (a stalwart of network television since its debut, and before that on radio since 1934) ended on its own accord in 1970 due to the show's aging demographics. The Red Skelton Show was cancelled by CBS at the end of the 1969–70 season, only to be picked up by NBC (the series' original network) for one more season. NBC would also revert Skelton's show to its original half-hour format in place of its more familiar hour-long format on CBS. By the end of 1972, Lucille Ball remained the only long-time star from television's golden era to still have her own show. Ball's show, Here's Lucy, still rated in the Nielsen top ten and would continue to pull in high ratings until its end in 1974. TV westerns were another genre fading in popularity. Apart from Gunsmoke and Bonanza, two prime-time staples which in 1971 had been on the air for a combined 28 years, most of the shows in the genre were already off the air at the time of the purge. NBC cancelled two of the remaining Westerns in 1971, The Virginian and The High Chaparral. Westerns had already been targeted for cancellation after concerns of violence led to pressure from parents' groups to tone down violence in television, and by 1969, no new Westerns were debuting.
Shows cancelled due to the purge
Note: The following shows were canceled at their end of the respective seasons. Some shows did not have necessarily have a rural theme, but were perceived to appeal primarily to rural/family audiences.
- The Original Amateur Hour (DuMont, 1947–49; NBC, 1949–54 and 1957–59; ABC, 1955–57 and 1960; CBS, 1959–1970)
- Petticoat Junction (CBS, 1963–1970)
- The Red Skelton Show (NBC, 1951–53; CBS, 1953–1970; NBC, 1970–71. Cancelled by CBS and renewed by NBC)
- The Jackie Gleason Show (DuMont, 1950-52; CBS, 1952–1970)
- Green Acres (CBS, 1965–1971)
- The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS, 1962–1971)
- Mayberry R.F.D. (CBS, 1968–1971; following The Andy Griffith Show, CBS, 1960-68)
- Hee-Haw (CBS, 1969–1971, first run syndication 1971–1991)
- Lassie (CBS, 1954–1971, first run syndication 1971–1973)
- Family Affair (CBS, 1966–1971)
- Hogan's Heroes (CBS, 1965–1971)
- The Jim Nabors Hour (CBS, 1969–1971)
- The Red Skelton Show (cancelled by NBC)
- The Lawrence Welk Show (locally in Los Angeles 1951–1955, ABC, 1955–1971, first run syndication 1971–1982)
- The Johnny Cash Show (ABC, 1969–1971)
- The Governor & J.J. (CBS, two seasons)
- The Virginian (NBC, 9 seasons)
- The Andy Williams Show (NBC, 10 seasons)
- Wild Kingdom (NBC, 1963–1971; syndication 1971–1988)
- Bonanza (NBC, 1959–1973)
- The Doris Day Show (CBS, 1968-1973 - though deviated from its rural/family theme after the 1970-71 season)
- Here's Lucy (CBS, 1968–74, following the related CBS series The Lucy Show (1962–1968), The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957–1960), and I Love Lucy (1951–1957)
- Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955–1975)
- Haggins, Jerry. "The Andy Griffith Show – U.S. Situation Comedy". Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 2012-05-07.
- "Mature Programs Dying As TV Woos Young Folks". The Oregonian.
- Clark, Jim (March 26, 1999). "Ken Berry Enjoys Taking Astaire Way to Mayberry and Beyond!". Official Website of Ken Berry. Retrieved May 22, 2009.
- Harkins, Anthony (2005). Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. Oxford University Press. p. 203. ISBN 0-19-518950-7. Retrieved March 23, 2009.
- Smith, Cecil (January 31, 1969). "Jim Nabors finished with Gomer". The Blade (Toledo, OH).
- "TV Ratings: 1968–69". ClassicTVHits.com.
- "TV Ratings: 1969–70". ClassicTVHits.com.
- "TV Ratings: 1970–71". ClassicTVHits.com.
- "TV Cowboys Bite Dust in Nets' Fall Line-Up". Chicago Tribune. March 13, 1969.