The "rural purge" of American television networks (in particular CBS) was a series of cancellations between 1969 and 1972, the majority of which occurred at the end of the 1970-71 television season of still popular rural-themed shows with demographically-skewed audiences. It was characterized as "the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it," a phrase by Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on CBS's Green Acres.
Starting with The Real McCoys, a 1957 ABC program, U.S. 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, Petticoat Junction, and Hee Haw.
As summarized for the Museum of Broadcast Communications:
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.
The purge was instigated by CBS executive 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 canceled as part of the purge, mentioning that as part of the titular revolution, the shows "will no longer be so damned relevant."
The numerous cancellations prompted Pat Buttram ("Mr. Haney" on one of the canceled shows, Green Acres) to make the observation: "It was the year CBS canceled everything with a tree—including Lassie (1954 TV series).";Lassie actually survived the initial rural purge.
The first rurally-themed show canceled by Silverman was Petticoat Junction. In September 1970 The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered on CBS. All in the Family premiered in January 1971 as a mid-season 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 canceled shows that skewed toward rural viewers (such as The Johnny Cash Show) or older viewers (The Danny Thomas Show/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 (TV series), all of which ran nine seasons or more.
Popularity of canceled shows
Syndication proved to be a haven for many of the canceled 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 (Mr. Welk was, by this time, 79 years old). 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. 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 wasn't 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'. 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 that is often cited in the purge, but that show was already in decline (due in part to the death of star Bea Benaderet) by the time it was canceled in 1970. What made these cancellations puzzling were the fact that they had come prior to 1970, at a time when CBS had yet to air any of their more "sophisticated" shows and gauge their popularity with the television audience. The success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and newer 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 fallen out of the Nielsen top 30 by the end of the 1970-71 season, yet both shows had continued to win their respective time slots and had a loyal following, warranting renewal for another season. Other shows that were still pulling in even higher ratings when canceled 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 that 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 a ratings hit; however, both series appealed to a younger demographic and thus were renewed for three more seasons.
Silverman replaced much of the canceled programming in 1971 and 1972 with "relevant" fare. Following All in the Family was its many spinoffs including Maude (TV series) 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 (TV series) was added to the network in 1972 remaining constantly in the top fifteen of shows for the next eleven seasons.
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 (U.S. game show), which debuted in September 1972. Gambit (game show) 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 canceled; 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 for NBC in 1980, two series that were extremely poorly received.
Non-rural themed shows canceled 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 canceled in 1970 and 1971 respectively. The Red Skelton Show was canceled by CBS at the end 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 television 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. (Gunsmoke, another carryover from the early era of television, also remained on the air until 1975; TV westerns were another genre that was fading in popularity, though most of the shows in the genre, other than Gunsmoke and Bonanza (TV series), were already off the air for a few years at the time of the purge, and only two Westerns, NBC's The Virginian (TV series) and The High Chaparral, were canceled in 1971. 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 canceled due to the purge
Note: The following shows were canceled at their end of the respective seasons. Some shows did not have a rural theme, but were perceived to appeal primarily to rural audiences or had a low youth/urban audience.
- Petticoat Junction (CBS, 1963–1970)
- The Red Skelton Show (NBC, 1951–53, CBS, 1953–1970, NBC, 1970-71. Canceled by CBS and renewed by NBC).
- The Jackie Gleason Show (CBS, 1962–1970)
- The Hollywood Palace (ABC, 1964–1970)
- Green Acres (CBS, 1965–1971)
- The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS, 1962–1971)
- Mayberry R.F.D. (CBS, 1968–1971)
- 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)
- This is Tom Jones (ABC, 1969–1971)
- The Governor & J.J. (CBS, 2 seasons)
- The Headmaster (TV series) (CBS, 1 season)
- The Interns (TV series) (CBS, 1 season)
- Storefront Lawyers (CBS, 1 season)
- The Tim Conway Comedy Hour (CBS, 1 season)
- To Rome With Love (CBS, 2 seasons)
- The Danny Thomas Show/Make Room For Granddaddy (ABC, 1 season, revival of the earlier Make Room for Daddy which had run from 1953 to 1964)
- The Virginian (TV series) (NBC, 9 seasons)
- The Andy Williams Show (NBC, 10 seasons)
- Wild Kingdom (NBC, 9 seasons)
- The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (CBS, 1969–1972)
- My Three Sons (ABC, 1960–65; CBS, 1965–1972)
- Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955-1975)
- Clark, Jim (March 26, 1999). "Ken Berry Enjoys Taking Astaire Way to Mayberry and Beyond!". Official Website of Ken Berry. http://www.kenberry.com/ken_berry_interview.htm. 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. http://books.google.com/books?id=dtehLu1cissC&pg=PA203&lpg=PA203&dq=CBS+cancelled+everything+with+a+tree+in+it&source=bl&ots=vQsGUrkj8W&sig=tQT0fk2d2iDOYy-z4XpqAAk6FL8&hl=en&ei=2nLISZvgMKKomQeMsIT-Ag&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=5&ct=result. Retrieved March 23, 2009.
- Adams, Cecil (January 31, 1969). "Jim Nabors finished with Gomer". The Blade (Toledo, OH). http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=EexOAAAAIBAJ&sjid=qwEEAAAAIBAJ&dq=gomer%20pyle&pg=2414%2C3314162.
- "TV Ratings: 1968-69". ClassicTVHits.com. http://www.classictvhits.com/tvratings/1968.htm.
- "TV Ratings: 1969-70". ClassicTVHits.com. http://www.classictvhits.com/tvratings/1969.htm.
- "TV Ratings: 1970-71". ClassicTVHits.com. http://www.classictvhits.com/tvratings/1970.htm.
- "TV Cowboys Bite Dust in Nets' Fall Line-Up". Chicago Tribune. March 13, 1969.
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