Many viewers of a certain age will remember the great “rural purge” of the 1970s. Networks canceled several of their most popular hits including “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gunsmoke.”
During the 1950s, many of the biggest sitcoms and shows on television centered on a rural setting. From “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Hee Haw” to “Green Acres,” viewers were captivated by small-town America and its country-side. This period of rural-focused shows continued well into the 1960s. Color television brought new dimensions to people’s living rooms.
But things began to change in the early 1970s. While these TV shows remained incredibly popular, networks wanted to attract new audiences. These rural programmings were popular with older audiences and people living rural areas and small towns. But ABC, NBC, and CBS wanted to attract a younger generation living in the cities. This younger generation was a prime target for advertisers.
CBS Started the Rural Purge
All the once, and still popular, shows had to go. But the purge started off innocent enough. CBS canceled “Petticoat Junction,” which had dropped in ratings after star Bea Benaderet died. The network replaced that show with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which proved to be a smash success. Inspired by that show’s high ratings, CBS began to purge its line-up of similar shows.
Pat Buttram, Mr. Haney on “Green Acres,” once said, “It was the year CBS canceled everything with a tree–including ‘Lassie.'”
Indeed, “Lassie” was also canceled as well. Shows that lasted multiple seasons like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gunsmoke” found themselves unceremoniously axed. The Wild West was proven undesirable after “Bonanza” was axed as well. Meanwhile, spinoffs from the Mayberry universe “Mayberry R.F.D” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C” also were struck by the purge.
New Programming Rose
While many lamented the loss of programming during this time, the move also produced several beloved hits. Classics like “The Brady Bunch, “The Bob Newhart Show, and “MASH” formed in the remnants of the purge. These shows would become icons in their own right. Likewise, a by-product of the purge created the beloved live studio audience multi-camera sitcom.
But rural programming wasn’t dead. “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie” proved that there was an audience still for small-town America. But never again did rural America occupy the public consciousness on TV to the same degree as it did before the purge.