Fifty years ago, the big three networks of CBS, NBC, and ABC ruled the TV landscape. With cable and other pay channels still years away, they were, in many places, the only game in town. Families settled in for shows like Lassie or The High Chaparral. That is, until 1971, when a convergence of events upended what the networks offered and which audiences they pursued. The year would mark the beginning of a permanent shift in the kind of shows we watched and how we watched them. This is how it happened.
The shape of TV changed 50 years ago in a number of ways. First, a shift in FCC rules took an hour away from the networks and gave it to local stations; this led to a several programs jumping from the network to a new life in syndication. One of those programs was Lassie. Music would also boom in syndication, as two network refugees (Hee Haw, The Lawrence Welk Show) found a new home alongside a syndicated original (Soul Train), after which all three shows ran for many more years. A different side effect of that lost hour of prime time was the cancellation of a number of other long-running programs, many of which were on CBS and many of which featured rural or small-town settings. Nicknamed “The Rural Purge,” this move demonstrated a philosophical sea change in how the networks and advertisers were targeting the audience.
Today, you might associate CBS most with procedurals (that is, cop or investigation shows), sitcoms, and reality competition programs. Shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Survivor became ratings juggernauts and inspired their own waves of programming. A similar programming outgrowth had started on the network in the 1950s; when rural themed programming proved popular with viewers, the network went all in, building out a number of sitcoms and shows all themed around small-town or country settings.
By 1971, some of those shows had been on the air for many years, but were still doing decently in the ratings. Among those programs were The Andy Griffith Show spin-off Mayberry R.F.D., The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres. Lassie was a drama, but had a similar setting, and country music variety show Hee Haw courted a similar audience. When prime-time lost an hour due to the FCC ruling, CBS execs decided to axe those five shows. Gunsmoke almost went, too, but a ratings resurgence earlier that season kept it on the air a few more years. Instead, Family Affair, Hogan’s Heroes, The Johnny Cash Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show got dropped.
The major rationale for excising these shows was that they appealed to demographics that were less desirable to more lucrative advertisers. Younger audiences gravitated to newer CBS programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family; the sitcoms were attracting big audiences while generating lots of discussion and “free press” for their modern topicality. The plan worked for CBS, as the network had room in the next few years to add groundbreaking programming like M*A*S*H*, Maude, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time.
NBC also had two notable 1971 cancellations that fit into the “rural purge” notion. Western The Virginian (later renamed The Man from Shiloh) ended after nine seasons, and fellow oater The High Chaparral ended after four. ABC’s cancellations from that year didn’t fit into the “rural purge” idea at all; two big departures included supernatural daytime soap Dark Shadows (which had experienced a serious ratings drop in its fifth year) and That Girl. That Girl was an outlier, as the Marlo Thomas series had youth appeal; however, Thomas was ready to move on to other projects. Interestingly, while her character and her long-time term boyfriend got engaged in the final season, Thomas insisted that they never wed on the show. Her reasoning was that she wanted female viewers to know that marriage wasn’t the only or “final” option in the world.
The 1971 realignment worked in CBS’s favor. The network was tied with NBC in 1970-1971, but by the following season, All in the Family was the #1 show and CBS was the sole owner of the top network position. The network would dominate much of the decade. After falling behind to ABC in the late 1970s, it would resurge in 1979-1980, buoyed by it sitcoms and boosted by the popularity of Dallas (ironically, a show that combined both urban and rural sensibilities) and The Dukes of Hazzard (uh, very rural).
The shift to more “relevant” or occasionally “urban” programming could be felt across network TV. While ABC leaned into some comfort fare like Happy Days, it also centered that show’s big spin-off, Laverne & Shirley, on two working women. By mid-decade, more shows with female and diverse leads broke through. Even John Shaft (you’re damn right) made the transition from film to CBS television, with film actor Richard Roundtree bringing his popular character to a series of TV movies; while Roundtree wasn’t happy with how the character was toned down for television, it was a significant step for the TV of the time.
Today’s network landscape is actually fairly similar across the board. Procedurals occupy a broad swath of programming at every network, containing law-enforcement, medical, and firefighting iterations at CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox. Sitcoms remain present, and every network has a reality-competition franchise. The CW has gone all in on DC Comics-related content while also hosting a strong Archie presence (Riverdale and its spin-offs).
While networks ruled TV in the 1970s, today their standing is greatly diminished. Most outside-the-box programming has migrated to cable and various streaming services. The last time that the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series went to a network show was for the fifth season of 24 in 2006; in terms of comedy, the networks haven’t claimed that Emmy since 2014 and Modern Family’s fifth win. The cultural conversation has certainly been stolen by cable and streaming, even in reality programming (Tiger King, we’re looking at you, even if we tried to avoid it). 1971 marked a definite turnover in the kind of shows that networks chose to run; in 2021, it looks like more viewers than ever are running from the networks.
Featured image: Bart Sherkow / Shutterstock.com
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