While it might not be the lingering hit it was throughout the 1960s, there was a time when The Beverly Hillbillies was dominating television ratings across the country. However, despite the tv show maintaining a loyal audience by 1971, CBS canceled it as part of its rural purge. Looking back at that purge, it’s a fascinating study of how the television world was both different and highly similar nearly 50 years ago.
What was ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’?
The Beverly Hillbillies was a classic story about a rural, struggling family suddenly making it rich and moving to the west coast. As stated in the series’s iconic theme song, it all started when Jed Clampett, played by the legendary Buddy Ebsen, was out and about on his property trying to hunt some food when he accidentally hit an oil swell and made his family rich.
Rather than stick around their rural setting, however, the family moved over the Beverly Hills to start a new life. Most of the sitcom’s comedy came from the fact that these rural bumpkins were not prepared for the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills, and audiences came in droves every week to see what types of shenanigans the Clampett family would get into.
Very much of its time, Hillbillies was a humorous look at the divide between the city dwellers and the rural folk — a theme that still resonates to this day. By 1971, however, CBS was looking to move in a new direction, and while rural shows like The Beverly Hillbillies were still surefire hits, the network wanted to move in a new direction and expand its horizons.
CBS has a ‘rural purge’
In the 1960s, sitcoms like Hillbillies were ratings gold. From Green Acres to Petticoat Junction and Hillbillies, audiences across the country loved to laugh both with and at the rural bumpkins that dominated the airwaves. Taking a page from The Andy Griffith Show, albeit with more of a slapstick bend, Hillbillies and other shows defined not only television but CBS in general.
All of this changed in 1971, however. While these rural sitcoms were a hit with an older generation that remembered the Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, and several other events that helped define rural America, younger audiences wanted something real and gritty. The network canceled every single rural-set show from Green Acres to The Beverly Hillbillies.
Although the new slate of shows were successes, with The Bob Newhart Show and Carol Burnett coming in the aftermath, the firing is still viewed as a mistake. Audiences change with the times, and while it is a good idea to appease them all, abandoning an entire audience to get younger creates brand new problems.
This “rural purge” had lingering effects, as well. To this day, it is hard for people in southern, rural areas to relate to shows mostly set in big cities across the world. However, thanks to syndication, throwback channels, and home streaming services, the purged shows in 1971 are given new life.
The legacy of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’
Hillbillies was one of the fastest-rising number-one shows in history, and it never fully fell back down to earth. Not only did the show remain at number one for much of its run, but its impact after cancellation.
Whether or not its cancellation was justified, the rags-to-riches tale presented a version of the American dream that audiences could enjoy regardless of their background. The cast reunited for a pair of specials in the eighties and nineties, and the series got a big-screen treatment in the 1990s when such projects were all the rage, too.
Television has changed a lot since the Rural Purge. However, The Beverly Hillbillies and the other canceled shows were not the only victims. To this day, it is hard to see a show that depicts an authentic, non-judgmental look at life away from the city that Hillbillies provided for nine years.