Network Massacre, Summer 1971

Written By: Greg Howell - Feb• 22•14

Anim_HomepageIn the early days of television, the experimental nature of programming offered almost free reign for the networks. As broadcasts expanded into daytime, late night, and weekends, local television stations were eager for network fare. By the late 1960s, however, the FCC began tightening the ropes for programming, implementing regulations regarding children’s programming, public service programs, and increased local programming. The most sweeping change came in the spring of 1971, as the FCC dictated that the major national networks relinquish blocks of time to local stations.

In afternoon programming, local affiliates immediately filled holes with reruns of old network shows, such as Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy. Of particular interest to local affiliates was running color programming, which brought in bigger audiences; thus, newly syndicated shows, such as Gilligan’s Island, My Favorite Martian, I Dream of Jeannie, and Star Trek reaped huge awards for local stations.   The real hit to networks, though, was the loss of 4 hours of primetime programming and advertising dollars due to the FCC changes.

The  network’s response has become legendary. Since the early days of 1960, programming geared to less urban audiences had swept the nation and pulled in top ratings. The Real McCoys, Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and the Beverly Hillbillies were all major hits. When advertisers began wondering if high ratings meant increased revenues, the Neilsen company began dividing ratings into demographics, splicing up audiences into the most profitable segments and the least profitable segments; thus, it was the programming geared to rural audiences that took the hit in 1971 as the networks  suddenly cleared their schedules due to the FCC ruling. CBS, ABC, and NBC canceled all programming that skewed to older and rural audiences. Highly rated shows like Lawrence Welk, Red Skelton, Johnny Cash, Ed Sullivan, the Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry, RFD, The Jim Nabors Hour, and Hee Haw, most in the nationwide Top 30, disappeared. Other shows, like The Doris Day Show, tweaked formats to achieve a hipper, more urban audience. In total, over 30 hours of network programming were removed from the prime time schedule for all three networks. Suddenly, television would be programmed to the younger, more affluent audiences, losing a great deal of the gentle programming offered by television’s golden age.

There were positive effects, however, as some niche programming surfaced to reach target audiences, and a host of programs surfaced in the coming years with more diversity and geared toward minorities, such as Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, Good Times, Welcome Back Kotter, The Jefferson’s and Maude.

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