In mid-1971, I experienced a most distressing visit to the dentist.
A TV fan magazine in the waiting room divulged life-changing news. Irene Ryan (who portrayed Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies”) told an interviewer she was madder than a wet hen – because CBS had canceled the beloved sitcom after nine seasons!
TV historians regard this as part of the “rural purge” of the early 70s. “Petticoat Junction” and “The Jackie Gleason” show had disappeared a year earlier, and “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” would hang on until 1973 and 1975, respectively. But fall 1971 was the epicenter of a major upheaval in programming.
“Green Acres,” “Hee Haw,” “Lassie” and “Mayberry R.F.D.,” as well as variety shows hosted by Red Skelton, Lawrence Welk, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Cash, Jim Nabors and Andy Williams all got the network heave-ho.
Part of the change arose because networks were ceding the first half-hour of prime time to local affiliates.
Veteran stars pricing themselves out of a job also played a part. But mostly, after two decades of indiscriminately pursuing the largest possible audience, the TV networks decided to cater to the most affluent demographic groups.
Yes, the programmers and Madison Avenue would tickle the fancy of trendy, malleable audiences, not the world-weary, tradition-bound consumers who recognized a snake-oil salesman when they saw one.
This emphasis on being edgy, hip and relevant to urban young adults spelled bad news for programs that attracted too many children, seniors and country folks.
I will grudgingly admit that this network disdain for kids, codgers and Cletuses – while producing only a handful of “city slicker” hits in the autumn of 1971 – would eventually make room for crowd-pleasers such as “M*A*S*H,” “Maude,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Sanford and Son,” “Rhoda” and “Barney Miller.”
Still, as a former youngster, a current senior, a lifelong small-town resident and a father apologizing that all the DVDs chronicling the porcine misadventures of Arnold Ziffel have been exhausted, part of me resents the elitism of the bicoastal TV executives.
True, over the years they have occasionally tossed the hicks in “flyover country” a bone (“Dukes of Hazzard,” “Sheriff Lobo,” “Lonesome Dove,” etc.). But they’ve never really apologized for five decades of forgettable “sophisticated” shows that fizzled with critics and Nielsen ratings families alike.
Sure, I have enjoyed my share of risqué programs in recent years; but I still yearn for the corny values of TV seasons past, such as Red Skelton ending his show with “Good night and may God bless.” The snooty network execs who cringed at the Clampetts taking a dip in the “ce-ment pond” have no qualms about doing the backstroke in a cesspool.
Granted, the last half-century has produced an embarrassment of riches with upscale sitcoms and dramas; but I can’t help but think that a little dash of the bucolic life would make them even better.
All those police forensics shows could be trimmed to the length of TikTok videos if Opie Taylor would confess to having accidentally killed the victim with his slingshot.
Emmett’s Fix-It Shop could have had that “Lost” plane going in mere weeks.
Ever imagine Hooterville’s Mr. Haney peddling genuine imitation transplant organs on “Grey’s Anatomy”?
Oh, and what about Grandpa Jones turning the tables and asking, “Hey, Soup Nazi – what’s for supper?”
The possibilities are endless – if you don’t look down on half your audience.