When I was a kid, I naively believed that the actors and actresses "owned" the TV shows and theatrical movies in which they appeared. I actually believed that John Wayne owned The Searchers, Burt Lancaster owned Elmer Gantry, and Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker, et al, owned Bonanza.
It wasn't until I became a teenager (call me a slow-learner) that I realized the studios owned the movies, and that sponsors like Procter & Gamble and the Ford Motor Company "owned" the network TV shows. Oddly, I still run into full-grown adults who don't realize the prodigious influence that the sponsors wield.
I was recently reminded of that influence when I referred to a particular politician as having a "disturbing Jethro Bodine quality." The person to whom I was speaking was too young to have recalled that Jethro Bodine (played by Max Baer, Jr.) was an earnest and likeable but slow-witted character on the old TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies.
By the time I finished explaining the context and history, the reference had lost whatever impact it may have had. In hindsight, in order to have driven home my point, I should have mentioned one of the characters in Dumb and Dumber.
In any event, Jethro Bodine took me back to what has been called the "Rural Purge," in TV broadcast history. This was the period roughly from 1969-to 1972, when the networks, at the behest of their sponsors who were now seeking a younger, hipper demographic, cancelled several rural-themed TV shows, many of which still had decent ratings.
These family-oriented, salt-of-the-earth shows had become staples of prime time viewing, beginning with The Real McCoys, in 1957. The networks had done amazingly well plumbing the "American heartland" demographic with wholesome programs like the Andy Griffith Show, Mr. Ed, Gomer Pyle, et al.
Among the shows to be "purged" were: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry RFD, Hee-Haw, The Jim Nabors Hour, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and Petticoat Junction. Pat Buttram, an actor on Green Acres, famously observed, "It was the year CBS cancelled everything with a tree--including Lassie."
To draw and sustain a younger audience, TV sponsors were now looking to edgier cop shows and fresher or iconoclastic sit-coms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and M*A*S*H, along with hipper variety fare like the Carol Burnett Show and the Flip Wilson Show. Lawrence Welk out, Rowan and Martin in.
Before anyone points out the obvious, let us note that, as always, there were exceptions, none of which was more apparent than The Waltons which ran from 1972 to 1981. But exceptions aside, the "rural purge" was pretty much a clean sweep. A whole new aesthetic was now in place.
So the next time you contemplate the content of network television, bear in mind that the companies advertising smart phones, beer, and cheeseburgers are the same companies influencing (and in some cases even dictating) the program's content.
David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition).
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