The Waltons had stiff TV competition in its early years. Before it became one of the most beloved family dramas in broadcast history, it first had to defeat “the death block.”
That’s how Judy Norton, who played Mary Ellen, the oldest Walton daughter, described the shows on opposite of her series.
“For the longest time we were up against two of the most popular shows on TV—Mod Squad and The Flip Wilson Show,” Norton told the site Zoomer. “We were basically on the death block. The ratings were not good and the producers did a major grassroots campaign to gather an audience, particularly in middle America.”
The Mod Squad was a popular show, but it never cracked the top 10. It had a unique concept featuring undercover narcotics cops. The show described the cops as, “One black, one white, one blonde.” The Flip Wilson Show was a variety series that starred comedian Flip Wilson. During its first two seasons, the show ranked second nationally in the ratings. It also became the first successful network variety series starring a Black performer.
The Waltons started as a stand-alone Christmas movie in December 1971. But the ratings were strong enough that CBS ordered it as a series. Show creators did some mass changes between the movie and the series. The actors who played the seven kids, including John Boy and Mary Ellen, stayed the same.
But show creators recast John and Olivia Walton and the grandfather. The series ranked 19th nationally in its first season, then skyrocketed to second in 1973-74. The Waltons stayed popular for most of its run.
Judy Norton said she was glad the setting for the show was the Great Depression through World War II. That way, the show’s messages transitioned from one generation to another. The historical setting was a curiosity because no matter the decade, fans love nostalgia.
“It has timeless values, and it features the very best in human nature,” Norton said. “If The Waltons had been set in the 1970s, the messages might have come off as too preachy or goodie-goodie. But the fact that it was a period piece and featured simple people living in a simple town, struggling through life, audiences were drawn to it.
“And, because there were three generations in the Waltons family, there was a character that everyone could relate to. It’s nostalgic and represents something that we don’t see in the world today; that sort of simplicity where you aren’t inundated 24/7 with news and danger. It allows people the opportunity to escape and, even if you’re crying by the end of an emotional episode, it’s cathartic. I’ve literally had fans come up to me and say, ‘You raised us. Your TV family raised us.’ To have that kind of an impact just doesn’t happen anymore.”
The Waltons stayed on the air through 1981. But fans loved the show’s nostalgia so much that writers created six reunion movies. The Waltons became its own “Death Block.”