Remember TV’s Rural Purge

(I had some pieces I’ve written over the years clogging up my desktop. They were all pieces that got accepted by websites but for one reason or another didn’t end up running. I figured I might as well put them up somewhere.)

Think of the popular modern, and even semi-modern, sitcoms. Where do they take place? Shows such as Friends and Seinfeld and Brooklyn Nine-Nine take place in New York City. You often hear about how New York is “another character” in a show. The Big Bang Theory and New Girl and many more take place in Los Angeles. Those are America’s two biggest cities, so that kind of makes sense. Then, of course, there have been sitcoms in cities such as Boston and Seattle and Chicago since, well the ’80s and least, and even back to the ’70s. Most sitcoms take place in major American cities, decidedly urban environments. There are shows, such as The Office or The Middle that take place in smaller enclaves, suburban areas and so forth. That’s part of the storytelling, but these are still cities. What you don’t see is shows set in rural areas. Try and think of a sitcom that has come out in the last handful of decades that took place in the country. You may find that difficult, and there is a reason for that.

First, we must go back to a bygone era when you couldn’t swing a dead cow without hitting a sitcom, or TV show, with a rural bend to it. In the ’60s, rural themed shows, and shows that were designed to appeal to a “rural” audience, were all the rage. These shows were about, in the parlance of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, “naïve but noble ‘rubes’ from deep in the American heartland.” If you’ve watched Nick at Nite, or TV Land, or were around in the ’60s, you remember these shows. The Andy Griffith Show is probably the most iconic of these shows, but it was joined by the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Mister Ed, and even some more. For some reason, TV viewers couldn’t get enough of shows that were set in the country. Even though, at the time, most people were living in cities, shows about the country abounded. Perhaps viewers were like Oliver Douglas from Green Acres, city folks dreaming of a life in the country, where things were simpler.

That seemed to be the really draw of these shows. Life in these rural shows was simpler, and not fraught with the problems of modern times. They were escapist, and they had a quiet, relaxing vibe to them. That’s not to say these shows were all the same. The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies were pretty by-the-books sitcoms, but Mister Ed was about a talking horse, and Green Acres was a bonkers, absurdist sitcom with more in common with The Monkees than Jed Clampett and his family. Nevertheless, for obvious reasons, these shows were all bunched together, and they had saturated the market… and that’s where the problems began.

The world does not remain static, and that includes what television viewers want. By the late ’60s, a younger, more socially aware audience had no interest in these simple, quaint rural sitcoms. Suddenly, these shows felt archaic and irrelevant, and the writing was on the wall. In 1970, Fred Silverman took over as CBS’ head of programming, and CBS was so dedicated to that rural lifestyle, they were jokingly referred to as “Country Broadcasting System.” That is, until Silverman, and his compatriots at other networks, got the knives out.

It began in 1970 with the cancellation of Petticoat Junction, and continued unabated. In the words of Green Acres actor Pat Buttram, they cancelled “everything with a tree.” In 1971, Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, Lassie, and many more got the boot. Dramas, mostly westerns, and comedies alike got the boot. Shows that appealed to “rural” audiences such as The Red Skelton Show and The Jim Nabors Hour also got cancelled. Over the course of a few years, the face of television changed. The “rural purge” was complete. A backdrop for so many shows for years was essentially wiped off the face of the Earth.

This, alone, makes the rural purge a notable moment in television history, but the shift in the landscape was even more seismic than that. In the wake of the rural purge, a whole new style of sitcom found its footing. CBS cancelled Petticoat Junction in April of 1970. In September of that year, The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. Here was a show about a single working woman, a modern woman, living in a city, albeit Minneapolis. This opened the door for MTM productions, and James L. Brooks, which led to other iconic sitcoms such as The Bob Newhart Show and Taxi. All in the Family debuted in 1971. M*A*S*H debuted in 1972. While rural shows such as Green Acres don’t seem to have much in common with the sitcoms of the modern era, shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show certainly do. This new era of sitcoms was highly influential in a way the rural shows were not. They have been largely forgotten, or at least had their legacy diminished. There has been no resurgence in similar shows. Television is dominated by people living in expensive cities in improbably large apartments.

The rural purge was definitely significant, and hugely important in the history of television. It is one of the biggest inflection points the medium has experienced. Was it a good thing, though? How should we feel about rural themed television shows disappearing from television swiftly? It’s a tricky question, one that lends itself to a conflicted answer. The shows that replaced the Hee Haw’s of the world were, by and large, better. The Bob Newhart Show is a decided improvement upon The Beverly Hillbillies. Shows such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H dealt with important social issues, which is what television viewers wanted at the time, and what they weren’t getting from Green Acres. Additionally, and particularly at the time, television was a place with limited resources. There was not an abundance of channels to choose from, just a handful of network stations. You could not, arguably, have both Petticoat Junction and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. For things to change, and for the medium to evolve, something had to go. Not all these cancelled shows died entirely, admittedly. Hee Haw, as one example, lived on in syndication for years. However, most of these shows did go away for good, and Hee Haw was certainly more marginal in syndicated form, and even it has been gone since 1991, and it was probably the last hanger on of the rural era of television.

On the other hand, not all these shows were bad. Green Acres is a good show. Did it have to be an all-or-nothing scenario? Were, perhaps, networks overzealous in catering to the changing times? It’s nice when a show tackles issues, or better reflects the lives of its viewers, but, in the end, the most important thing is for a show to be good, for it to entertain those who watch it. There is something to be said for a variety of environments, of backgrounds, on television, and there is also something to be said about TV shows that are simpler, and that are divorced from the “real world.” It didn’t have to be so thorough a house cleaning, but it was, and television has never seemed to have any qualms with that decision.

In the end, the rural purge, in addition to being a significant time period in television history, is probably one of the bigger overcorrections the medium has ever experienced as well. It was still the early days of TV, to be fair. They were still figuring things out, they saw what they thought was a problem, and they dealt with it. Then again, maybe they weren’t wrong. Maybe the fact the popular sitcoms, and even the unpopular sitcoms, have continued to base their worlds in New York and Los Angeles is meaningful. Perhaps that is what people want, even now. It can both function as a reflection of the modern world, and modern problems, but also offer wish fulfillment. It doesn’t feel like there will ever be another Green Acres. Television used to be laden with country vistas and farms and yokels and hicks and assorted other sons of the soil. That’s all a memory now, and it seems like that is all it ever will be going forward, for better or worse.