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What was the Rural Purge by CBS?

In the early 1970s, a dramatic shift occurred in the landscape of American television, a change so profound that it would come to be known as the “rural purge.” This period saw CBS, one of the leading television networks, cancel a significant number of its rural-themed shows despite their popularity and high ratings. From beloved sitcoms set in small towns to variety shows that celebrated country living, no program was safe from the chopping block. 

The move was aimed at revamping the network’s image and attracting a younger, more urban demographic deemed more appealing to advertisers. This decision not only signified the end of an era for television but also reflected broader cultural shifts happening in America at the time. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the rural purge, examining the shows affected, the reasons behind CBS’s sweeping changes, and the lasting impact on the television industry and American culture.

Before the Rural Purge

actors Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor on an episode of “Green Acres”

Before the onset of the rural purge by CBS in the early 1970s, the network’s lineup was heavily populated with shows that celebrated the simplicity and charm of rural and small-town America. Series like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” and “The Andy Griffith Show” not only drew in millions of viewers across the country but also dominated the ratings, becoming staples of American television. These shows offered audiences an escape to a simpler life, marked by homespun humor, close-knit communities, and a slower pace, contrasting sharply with the complexities and challenges of urban living and the turbulent social changes of the 1960s.

At the same time, variety shows such as “Hee Haw” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” brought country music and rural-themed entertainment into living rooms nationwide, further cementing the network’s reputation for programming that appealed to a broad, albeit older, segment of the American population. This era of television reflected a nation that was, in many ways, divided between the urban and the rural, the modern and the traditional. CBS, with its rural-themed content, found success in tapping into the nostalgia and values of a significant portion of the American audience, creating a golden age for television shows that celebrated the rural American lifestyle. 

However, as the 1970s approached, changing demographics and shifts in advertising strategies would soon lead the network to reevaluate its programming, setting the stage for the sweeping changes that would come to be known as the rural purge.

How the Rural Purge Began

The beginning of the rural purge by CBS can be traced back to a strategic decision made by network executives in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Faced with changing demographics and a desire to attract a younger, more urban audience, CBS started to reassess its programming lineup. This shift was driven by the belief that younger viewers, particularly those living in cities, held greater appeal to advertisers looking to market a new wave of products and services. As a result, despite the popularity and high ratings of many rural-themed shows, the network made the unprecedented move to cancel them.

Shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Mayberry R.F.D.,” and “Hee Haw” were among the casualties, their cancellation signaling the end of an era of television that celebrated the simplicity and humor of rural American life. These series were characterized by their wholesome content, humor, and a nostalgic portrayal of a simpler life, resonating with a wide audience across the United States. For more information on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” check out our article, Beverly Hillbillies – An American Classic TV Series.

The decision to enact the rural purge was not taken lightly but was seen as necessary for the network to remain competitive and financially viable in a changing media landscape. The move was met with mixed reactions; while it did lead to the introduction of groundbreaking shows that addressed contemporary issues and catered to the desired demographic, it also alienated a significant portion of the network’s loyal viewership. The shows that replaced the canceled series, such as “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “M*A*S*H,” reflected the evolving tastes of American audiences and the industry’s shift towards more urban-centric, socially conscious content.

The rural purge had lasting effects on the television industry, influencing programming decisions and content creation for years to come. It underscored the power of advertising dollars in shaping media content and highlighted the dynamic relationship between cultural trends, audience preferences, and network strategies. 

Repercussions of the Rural Purge

The rural purge initiated by CBS in the early 1970s had several significant repercussions that reshaped the television landscape and reflected broader cultural shifts. These changes not only impacted the network itself but also the entertainment industry and its audience:

  • Shift in Television Content: The purge led to a dramatic shift in the type of content being produced and aired on television. Rural and family-oriented shows were replaced with urban-themed series and those that tackled more contemporary and sometimes controversial issues. This shift mirrored the changing dynamics of American society at the time, including urbanization and a greater focus on youth culture.
  • Change in Audience Demographics: By targeting a younger, more urban demographic, CBS aimed to attract viewers who were perceived as more lucrative for advertisers. This strategic shift meant that television programming began to cater more to the preferences and lifestyles of this demographic, sidelining the tastes of rural and older audiences who had been loyal viewers of the canceled shows.
  • Impact on Rural Representation: The rural purge significantly reduced the representation of rural America on television. The cancellation of shows that celebrated rural life and values left a void in the portrayal of these communities, contributing to a media landscape where urban experiences were more prominently featured.
  • Innovation in Television Genres: The purge paved the way for new genres and formats to emerge on television. The introduction of more diverse and complex narratives, including sitcoms and dramas that explored urban life, workplace settings, and social issues, marked an evolution in television storytelling that continues to influence the medium today.
  • Audience Backlash: The sudden cancellation of beloved shows sparked backlash from viewers who felt a deep connection to the characters and communities depicted in rural-themed series. This discontent highlighted the strong bond between audiences and television characters, underscoring the impact of programming decisions on viewer loyalty.
  • Legacy of Canceled Shows: Despite their cancellation, many of the rural-themed shows that fell victim to the purge have enjoyed enduring popularity through syndication and home media releases. Their continued appeal underscores the timeless nature of their humor, storytelling, and characters, cementing their place in television history.

The rural purge by CBS has a big impact on television, reflecting and contributing to changes in societal values, media consumption patterns, and the entertainment industry’s approach to programming.

Conclusion

By opting to cancel a swath of popular rural-themed shows in favor of content that catered to a younger, urban demographic, CBS not only reshaped its own programming landscape but also signaled a broader shift within the television industry. This decision reflected and contributed to changing societal norms and preferences, highlighting the medium’s role in mirroring and influencing cultural trends.

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