the rise and fall of the rural comedy, take 1

Hee HawYou’ll find this line in last week’s post:

Instead we remember the 1960s for shows like Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee Haw.

One correspondent said he’d read that Hee Haw and other rural shows were cancelled despite high ratings, and he wondered if I knew why. Here’s my reply, lightly edited to protect the innocent:

One of the actors from Green Acres called the 1970–71 season "the year CBS cancelled everything with a tree."…

It’s not entirely clear to me what caused the "rural revolution" of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but my memory of the shows — all of which I watched as a kid in the 1970s — leads me to believe that they were a swipe at Southerners from the beginning, or at least a backhanded compliment. They were produced by coastal urbanites and poked fun at the yokels. My guess is that it was a cynical attempt by the networks to create unity in their national audiences at a time when the nation was becoming divided over civil rights and other cultural issues, e.g., "Rock and roll is the Devil’s music!" The reading I did on the Golden Age of Television reveals the networks of the 1950s as trying desperately not to give offense, doing anything they could to avoid controversy. (It was a very different time.) So NY and LA were affectionately condescending, or condescendingly affectionate, to our rural cousins.

I’d love to find evidence of Southerners or Midwesterners taking it that way at the time, but apparently the rural comedies did as well in the sticks as they did in the cities.

They then got a real boost during the JFK administration, because Newton Minow had put the fear of God and the FCC in the hearts of the programmers, and they were trying to do whatever they could to run profitable shows under a culture czar. The politically correct New Frontier dramas mostly failed, but the rural comedies continued to receive high ratings up until they were cancelled, as you note.

So why kill off popular, profitable shows?

It was the beginning of a new strategy in television programming, one that was abandoned and taken up again over the following decades: advertisers didn’t care anymore about the size of a show’s audience but rather the size of their target demographics within the audience. Specifically, they wanted to reach the Baby Boomers — the young, politically radicalized, and increasingly urban TV viewers. The rural comedies earned their high ratings from the wrong demographic, and back when there were only the Big Three networks, they couldn’t divvy up the dial for a Young Urban Channel and a Rural Comedy Network, etc., so they tossed out their loyal viewers to woo the angry Boomers.

The mantra of the 1960s Boomers was "relevance," and the rural comedies weren’t relevant.

(I’m also guessing that the relevant demographic associated the southern accents of Mayberry and Hee Haw not only with Jim Crow but also with LBJ, whom they associated with Vietnam.)

There was even a famous spoken-word poem from the time called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (YouTube, lyrics), which attacked at least seven of the shows that were later cancelled in the rural purge.

Hee Haw and company were ousted from primetime, replaced by the "socially relevant" sitcoms we remember from the 1970s: All in the Family, Maude, Mary Tyler Moore, and M*A*S*H.

Lawrence WelkOne interesting side note to the rural purge is the issue of syndication. The rural shows, including non-comedies like The Lawrence Welk Show, were purged from primetime network television, but they didn’t all leave the air. There was still an audience out there, and while the networks no longer wanted them, the local independent stations did. When I was a kid, I watched these shows as afternoon reruns on the UHF channels, but Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw continued to produce new shows for syndication for quite a while. The Lawrence Welk Show, which had started in the early 1950s, continued for another decade, until Welk retired in the early ’80s. And the repeats continue to run on PBS today.

Hee Haw, believe it or not, continued to produce original shows for syndication until 1992.

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One Response to the rise and fall of the rural comedy, take 1

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    “The rural shows, including non-comedies like The Lawrence Welk Show

    Alt: The urban shows, including such comedies – if of the most “unwitty” kind* – as … The Lawrence Welk Show.

    *To the extent that Welk’s … joint was, it would seem, really jumpin’ in those days, Fats Waller might with justice have demanded a … hit off of it, though in the wake of the inflation of the thirty years then after the Waller’s death, the rain of mere pennies from heaven had long since given way to a march of dime bags, then and since, such that even after forty years more, smoke gets as much in the eyes of pop lyricists and listeners alike as ever.

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