Monday, December 26, 2011

The rural purge

Not too long ago I did a post on new television shows featuring rural themes. In that post, I made the point that these shows are not the rural person’s first foray into the spotlight, but that this is another batch of exploitation and stereotyping. I compared new shows such as Hillbilly Handfishin’ (no “g”) and Redneck Riveria to shows like Dukes of Hazard, Beverley Hillbillies, and The Andy Griffith Show. During my research for that post I learned of something called the Rural Purge—or as Pat Buttram of Green Acres called it, “when CBS killed everything with a tree in it.”

The facts of the inquisition look fairly convincing, below is a list of the shows cancelled, their network, and their Nielsen TV Ranking before cancellation.
  • Mayberry RFD, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank #15 (in 1969 and 1970 Mayberry RFD ranked #4 in the Nielsen ratings)
  • The Red Skelton Show, CBS, cancellation 1970, rank #7 (The Red Skelton Show moved to NBC the following year, but changed its format to a variety show and the rating fell to 30)
  • Petticoat Junction, CBS, cancellation 1970, rank #35.
  • Green Acres, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank fell below 30, but had a lifetime average of 24.
  • Beverly Hillbillies, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank in 1971 was 33, top 20’s and even #1 prior to that.
  • Hee-Haw, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank #16.
  • The Jim Nabors Hour, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank #2
The above is just a sampling, for a full list of the cancelled shows.  Check out the Wikipedia page.

Of course, there can always be other hypotheses for cancellations. One idea might be the actors pursuing other opportunities. But only one show, Gomer Pyle USMC, credits the actor for the cancellation. Or you might think that they were pushed out due to success of other shows. During this time-period, variety shows such as the Mary Tyler Moore Show became immensely popular. However, most of the cancellations took place before variety shows hit their peak after the Purge. You could argue that these variety shows became popular by absorbing rural-TV audiences.

Fred Silverman, the Grand Inquisitor of the Purge, often stated that the need to draw more urban demographics into the networks net combined with the new Prime Time Access Rules by the FCC meant these shows had to go.

The FCC issued the first Prime Time Access Rule in 1970. The rule essentially stated that a network may only have three network programs during prime time hours (a four hour block from 7:00 PM ET until 11:00 PM ET), so something had to give. But the ratings might tell a little different story. Silverman would have people believe that the ratings didn’t warrant a shows renewal, but more urban-friendly shows such as The Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family rarely even cracked the top 30 of the Nielsen ratings.

One theory was that the advertisers demanded urban-centric programming in order to make their ads more effective. And this makes some sense: people with immediate access to your product are more likely to purchase. However, it isn’t clear that content would actually matter.

Ultimately, this is only television and the business-centered explanations make the most sense. Larger sociological concepts are secondary considerations here. But for the sake of reaching something larger than dollars, consider why CBS and advertisers believed rural-centric shows couldn’t sell products. It might be “otherness.” In their book, Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century, Brown and Schaftt talk about how urban people view rural people, the rural mystique, and similar concepts. Apply that to TV and we see that rural shows might have been successful because it was a spectacle—a type of rural voyeurism. You could think that products might not sell as well when people don’t actually relate to the show. More urban shows, that relate to your demographic, could sell products better because they don’t carry the “otherness” aspect.

And maybe that’s the truth for most rural shows. Behold, the rural spectacle.

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