The debut of The Real McCoys in 1957 proved to network executives that television audiences were more than willing to watch rural comedies. Its success paved the way for more rural comedies, including The Andy Griffith Show. It was the success of The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960-1961 season that started off a cycle towards rural comedies that included The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., and Green Acres. The cycle slowed a bit in the mid-Sixties with no new rural comedies debuting in the 1966-1967 and only one in the 1967-1968 season (Accidental Family), but it was not quite over yet. The 1968-1969 season saw the debut of three new rural comedies.
Except for Andy Griffith, Ron Howard, and Aneta Corsaut, Mayberry R.F.D. retained most of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show, including George Lindsay as Goober Pyle (Gomer's cousin who was a mechanic), Jack Dodson as county clerk Howard Sprague, and Paul Hartman as fix it shop owner Emmett Clark. Even Frances Bavier remained part of the cast for a time. She became Sam Jones' housekeeper and remained with the show through its second season. She was replaced as Sam's housekeeper by his cousin Alice (played by Alice Ghostley), who had just finished a stint in the military. Arlene Golonka, who had played a love interest for Howard Sprague in two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show in its final season, played Sam's girlfriend Millie Swanson. Andy Griffith would guest star on Mayberry R.F.D. three more times during its first season, as well as in the first episode of its second season (which dealt with the christening of his new baby, Andy Jr.).
Mayberry R.F.D. debuted 23 September 1968 on CBS. Unless one considers it a continuation of The Andy Griffith Show (which would be very valid), Mayberry R.F.D. was the top rated new show of the 1968-1969 season, coming in at #4 in the Nielsen ratings for the year. It continued to receive good ratings for the rest of its run. Unfortunately Mayberry R.F.D. would be one of the victims of the Rural Purge at CBS. At the time of its cancellation at the end of the 1970-1971 season it was ranked #15 in the Nielsens for the year.
It would be a number of factors which would bring Doris Day to television. The first is that by the late Sixties her movie career was in decline. The Ballad of Josie (1967), Caprice (1967), and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968) all performed badly at the box office. The second was that following the death of her husband Marty Melcher on 20 April 1968 she discovered that he and his business partner (and Miss Day's attorney) Jerome B. Rosenthal had mishandled the millions she had earned through her films. Quite simply, she was bankrupt. The third was that she discovered Marty Melcher had signed a contract with CBS for her to do a television series without consulting her. Doris Day did not particularly relish the idea of doing a television show, but felt obligated to do so. The show would also give her money to help pay off her debts. As to Jerome B. Rosenthal, Doris Day sued him and eventually won a civil judgement of $22 million.
The Doris Day Show debuted 24 September 1968. In its original incarnation Miss Day played Doris Martin, a widow with two sons, Billy (played by Philip Brown) and Toby (played by Todd Starke). Doris had recently returned to her father's ranch outside of San Francisco, California. Her father, Buck Webb, was played by Denver Pyle. James Hampton (who had played Private Dobbs on F Troop) played their ranch hand Leroy B. Simpson. For the first ten episodes of the season Fran Ryan played their housekeeper Aggie, after which Naomi Stevens took over as their housekeeper Juanita (no explanation was ever given for Aggie's departure).
While The Doris Day Show did very well in the ratings (it ranked #30 in the Nielsens for the year), the second season would see a slight change in the show's format. While Doris and her sons remained on Buck's ranch, she took a job with the magazine Today's World and commuted to San Francisco. New characters were introduced in the form of Michael Nicholson (played by MacLean Stevenson), the editor of Today's World and Doris' boss, and her co-worker Myrna Gibbons (played by Rose Marie). Buck and Leroy still appeared on the show somewhat regularly, although Juanita had totally disappeared. Despite the show doing extremely well in the ratings (coming in at #10 for the year), The Doris Day Show would see yet another change in its format for the third season, as Doris and her boys moved away from the ranch and into San Francisco. Of course, at this point The Doris Day Show ceased to be a rural comedy entirely.
Strangely enough, despite ranking #20 for the year, The Doris Day Show would see one last format change in its fourth season. Suddenly and without explanation Doris played a single career woman (although her name was still Doris Martin) with no children. No mention was made of her sons or what had become of them--it was as if they had never existed. She also had a new boss at Today's World, Cy Bennett (played by character actor John Dehner) and a new cast of supporting characters. This format would remain in place for the last two seasons of the show. At the end of the 1972-1973 season CBS wanted to renew The Doris Day Show for a sixth season, but Miss Day chose to no longer continue with the series.
With its changes in format over its run, The Doris Day Show reflected the changes American television was experiencing in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The show began as a rural comedy of the sort popular in the Sixties. With its third season it became an urban based domestic comedy of the type in vogue at the time (The Brady Bunch being one example). By the fourth season The Doris Day Show was centred on a single career woman, not unlike The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Watching the entire run of The Doris Day Show would then be something like seeing the changes in American television from 1968 to 1973 in miniature.
The Ghost & Mrs. Muir centred on young widow Carolyn Muir, who moved into Gull Cottage near the small village of Schooner Bay. She had two children, her daughter Candy (played by Kellie Flanagan) and son Jonathan (played by Harlen Carraher). Gull Cottage also had one other resident, namely the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg, a 19th Century sea captain. Captain Gregg had the usual array of ghostly powers. He could move objects. He could appear and disappear at will. He could even affect the weather (a few storms did arise due to his anger). Charles Nelson Reilley played Claymore Gregg, one of the captain's descendants and Schooner Bay's town clerk (among various other jobs). Captain Gregg did not think terribly much of Claymore and Claymore, one of the few who was aware of the captain's ghost, was terrified of him. Rounding out the cast was Reta Shaw, as Carolyn Muir's housekeeper Martha Grant.
Although the format of The Ghost & Mrs. Muir branded it a fantasy sitcom and its setting clearly made it a rural sitcom, the show had a bit of a split personality. Most of the plots were those typical of a fantasy sitcom, such as one in which Captain Gregg must face off against a ghost hunter. Yet others episodes were more typical of the domestic comedies of the time, such as one in which Jonathan is having problems playing little league baseball. As might be expected of a rural comedy set in a small town, the village of Schooner Bay does play a major role in some episodes. In one episode the village decided to erect a statue to a local hero and Captain Gregg is incensed that it is not him. In another Schooner Bay celebrated its centennial.
The Ghost & Mrs. Muir debuted on NBC on 28 September 1968. Unfortunately it aired against My Three Sons on CBS (ranked #14 in the Nielsens) and The Lawrence Welk Show on ABC (ranked #28 for the year). NBC then cancelled The Ghost & Mrs. Muir due to low ratings towards the end of the 1968-1969 season. Fortunately the show was picked up for the 1969-1970 season by ABC. Unfortunately, it was once more scheduled against a high rated domestic sitcom on CBS, Family Affair (then #5 in the Nielsens for the year), as well as the popular Daniel Boone on NBC. ABC then cancelled The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. Its last episode aired 13 March 1970.
The 1969-1970 season should perhaps be considered the end of the cycle towards rural comedies. Green Acres had dropped out of the top twenty shows for the year in the 1968-1969 season. The 1969-1970 season saw The Beverly Hillbillies slip from #10 to #18, a decline which would continue into the following season. Although it was still a hit, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. had gone off the air when Jim Nabors decided to move onto other things. He received his own variety show that season. The 1969-1970 season was the final season of Petticoat Junction, which CBS had only renewed so it would have five years worth of colour episodes for syndicated reruns. Although Mayberry R.F.D. and The Doris Day Show were both doing very well, it also seems that the cycle was finally coming to an end.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town debuted on ABC on 26 September 1969. It had the misfortune to be scheduled against the still popular Hogan's Heroes on CBS and The Name of the Game on NBC. As result it suffered consistently low ratings and its last episode aired on 16 January 1970. It would be the last rural comedy to debut in the Sixties.
That the 1969-1970 season was the last season of the cycle towards rural shows in the Sixties can be borne out by the fact that no new rural comedies debuted in the fall of the 1970-1971 season. That is not to say that a familiar face from rural comedies would not return to television that autumn. Headmaster (sometimes called The Headmaster) was a show starring Andy Griffith as the headmaster of the Concord School, a prestigious private school in Southern California. Despite the fact that it starred Andy Griffith, it was not a rural show by any stretch of the imagination. Instead it was a comedy drama belonging to the cycle of relevant shows that had begun in 1968 with The Mod Squad and included such shows as The Storefront Lawyers and The Interns. These were shows that were meant to appeal to the youth and dealt with the issues of the day. For instance, the first episode of Headmaster guest starred Butch Patrick (best known as Eddie Munster on The Munsters) who succumbs to peer pressure to do drugs. It debuted 18 September 1970
Headmaster proved very unpopular with both critics and audiences alike. It should be no surprise, then, that it was soundly beaten in the ratings by The Partridge Family (which ranked #25 for the year). Headmaster was promptly cancelled and replaced with a show that featured Andy Griffith in more familiar surroundings. The New Andy Griffith Show was a rural comedy, the last to debut before the Rural Purge (which was in the works even as it premiered). It starred Andy Griffith as Andy Sawyer, who returns to his hometown of Greenwood, North Carolina only to find himself elected Mayor Pro Tem. Lee Merriweather played his wife Lee, while Marty McCall and Lori Rutherford played his children, T.J. and Lori. Ann Morgan Guilbert played his sister in law, who lived with them and was always interfering.
Although it might have seemed as if it was a spur of the moment decision on the part of CBS at the time, the Rural Purge had actually been coming for some time. As early as March 1967, in an article in Variety, a CBS executive expressed concern over the network's ageing audience. At that time it was reported that CBS was planning to redo its schedule to better compete with NBC for younger viewers. Indeed, it was in 1967 that long running game shows I've Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth, and What's My Line?, as well as the long running oater Gunsmoke, were cancelled by CBS because their audiences skewed too old. Gunsmoke would be swiftly returned to the schedule, but the game shows would not.
Regardless, the rural comedies' days would be numbered once Robert D. Wood became president of CBS in 1969. Mr. Wood was concerned both by CBS' slipping ratings for the past few years (although it was still the #1 network), and also worried that CBS was not attracting the young, urban audiences desired by advertisers. According to the book Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era by Janet Staiger, plans for what would become known as "the Rural Purge" were probably being made as early as October 1969. It was at the CBS affiliates' meeting in May 1969 that Robert D. Wood announced "...a young, fresh, new approach to programming." It was in June 1970 that he appointed Fred Silverman as Vice President, Programmes, essentially the head of the programming department. It would be Fred Silverman who would serve as the architect of the Rural Purge.
Here it should be pointed out that while the Rural Purge appears to have been in the planning stages as early as October 1969, there are some series cancellations prior to the 1970-1971 season that should not properly be considered preludes to the Rural Purge, even though they often are considered such. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was not cancelled by the network at all, but rather it ended its run because its star wished to move onto other things. Indeed, CBS immediately gave Jim Nabors his own variety show, which appealed to the same rural audience as Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. The Jim Nabors Hour would be cancelled as part of the Rural Purge in the 1970-1971 season. Petticoat Junction is another show whose cancellation probably should not be considered a predecessor to the Rural Purge. The show's ratings had been declining since the death of Bea Benaderet and, in fact, CBS considered cancelling it at the end of the 1968-1969 season. It received a single season reprieve because the network wanted five full years worth of colour episodes for syndication.
Regardless of whether The Jackie Gleason Show and The Red Skelton Show can be considered preludes to the Rural Purge, the Purge may well be the largest mass cancellation of shows of a specific type in American television history. None of CBS' rural comedies survived. The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Mayberry R.F.D. were all gone. Shows in other genres that appealed largely to rural populations were also cancelled, including the variety shows Hee-Haw and The Jim Nabors Hour. Not all shows cancelled in the Rural Purge were due to their audiences being too rural. Some were cancelled because their audiences were simply considered too old. This was the case with Family Affair, Hogan's Heroes, To Rome with Love, and The Ed Sullivan Show. CBS also cancelled the long running Lassie (I am not sure why, but I can imagine its audience may have been too young--in prime time ratings, children don't count). As Pat Buttram (who played Mr. Haney on Green Acres) commented on the Rural Purge, "It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it, even Lassie."
While the Rural Purge mostly took place at CBS, NBC and ABC also cancelled a few shows in the 1970-1971 season because of demographics. NBC cancelled The Men From Shiloh (the title of The Virginian in its final season), The Andy Williams Show, The Red Skelton Show, and Wild Kingdom because their audiences were too old, too rural, or both. ABC cancelled The Johnny Cash Show because its audience was too rural and The Lawrence Welk Show because its audience was too old.
The mass cancellations of rural shows and shows that appealed to older people was fairly big news in the 1970-1971 season. In fact, it was even as it was taking place that the phrase "rural purge" was first used. As early as 10 February 1971, in an article by Clarence Petersen in The Chicago Tribune titled "Ax May Fall on Sullivan and Rurals", the phrase "rural purge (not yet capitalised)" appeared.
Of course, demographics were not the only factor that led to the Rural Purge. Another factor was the Prime Time Access Rule. The Prime Time Access Rule grew out of the Federal Communications Commission's concern over the dominance of the broadcast networks in television production and programming. The Prime Time Access Rule was then enacted in the hope of increasing diversity on local stations, allowing them to air different sorts of shows in time slots that once belonged the networks. To this end, the Prime Time Access Rule restricted network programming from 8:00 PM Easterm/7:00 PM Central to 11:00 PM Eastern/10:00 PM Central. This meant that the networks lost several hours' worth of time slots each week going into the 1971-1972 season. It also meant that they had to cancel many more shows than they ever had to before. Since CBS had to cancel many more shows than they usually would, they then took the opportunity to rid themselves of shows that appealed to older and rural audiences.
Another factor that may have led to the Rural Purge, although it is one that is not easily quantified or even verified, might have been sheer cultural bias. In the Fifties Irving Pincus had difficulty selling The Real McCoys because network executives thought viewers would have no interest in watching a show about rural people. Of the Rural Purge, Fred Silverman himself said, "The time has come to go big city as opposed to hayseed." For better or worse, rural humour has always been somewhat looked down upon. It has been considered lowbrow and unsophisticated. On the part of executives belonging to what some jokingly called the "Country Broadcasting System', there may have been a desire to distance themselves from shows they considered lowbrow and uncultured.
Indeed, with an ongoing cycle towards relevant shows, shows that dealt with the issues of the day, at the time, network executives and others may have looked down upon the rural comedies more than they ever had. Indeed, most of the rural comedies fastidiously avoided current issues. Despite being set on a Marine base Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. never referenced the ongoing Vietnam War. Not only was the Civil Rights movement never mentioned on The Andy Griffith Show, but Mayberry appeared to be the only Southern town with no black population whatsoever (here I should point out that according to Howard Morris in a retrospective on the show there were those who worked on The Andy Griffith Show who wanted African American characters on the series). Only The Beverly Hillbillies occasionally addressed current issues, and, even then, it was choosy about what to cover (the Student Movement, but not the anti-war movement, and so on). As a whole minorities were missing from the rural comedies of the Sixties, notable exceptions being The Real McCoys and Kentucky Jones. Of course, here it must be pointed out that the rural comedies were not alone in ignoring the issues of the day or not featuring minority characters. The Sixties was an era of escapist television, so that one would not see the Vietnam War mentioned on Please Don't Eat the Daisies any more than he or she would The Andy Griffith Show. And, sadly, minority characters were rarely seen on any situation comedies, rural or otherwise, for most of the decade.
One factor that did not play a role in the Rural Purge, although it is often cited, was the debut of All in the Family. All in the Family debuted on 12 January 1971 even as the Rural Purge was about to take place. Its ratings were so poor that, even given the large number of shows CBS had cancelled in the Rural Purge. there was no guarantee that it would be renewed. What ultimately saved All in the Family were the seven Emmy nominations it received (three of which it won) on 14 April 1971 when the National Academy Television Arts and Sciences announced their Emmy nominations. It was on 21 April 1971 that CBS finally renewed All in the Family. Of course, All in the Family would improve in the ratings, becoming the #1 show for the 1972-1973 season and staying there for five years. Regardless, debuting even as the Rural Purge was about to take place, doing poorly in the ratings even as it was taking place, and being renewed after the Rural Purge had taken place, All in the Family did not play an important role in the Rural Purge. That having been said, its success in the coming season did point the way for CBS to go with regards to programming after having cancelled nearly all of their rural shows.
While the rural comedies were sometimes ridiculed for being corny and, as the Sixties became the Seventies, mocked for not being "relevant", there can be little doubt that they spoke to a large number of Americans in a way that later urban sitcoms did not. For all that All in the Family addressed such important issues as the Vietnam War, abortion, feminism, and so on, people in small towns and rural areas might well have found it easier to relate to the characters on The Andy Griffith Show or, even given the exaggeration, Green Acres. I rather doubt many people in small towns (or even big cities, for that matter) stand around and argue about various issues the way Archie and Mike did on All in the Family, but some of the problems and disagreements seen on The Andy Griffith Show do actually occur in small towns from time to time (at least ones in this county). For all their flaws, in some respects the rural comedies may have been more relevant for many than the so called "relevant" comedies that came after them.
Indeed, it must be pointed out that many of the shows to emerge from the cycle towards rural comedies in the Sixties, even some cancelled in the Rural Purge, have persisted in syndication ever since. The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., and Green Acres can still be seen in reruns on local stations throughout the United States to this day. In fact, The Andy Griffith Show may well be more popular than many, much more recent shows. While CBS may have thought the rural comdies attracted the wrong demographic, the fact is that they have maintained their popularity for decades after many of the shows that replaced them have faded away.