When the 1970s dawned, some of the most popular shows on television had rural themes and characters. By the 21st century, none did. At about the same time, direct broadcast satellite television systems grew from one satellite used only occasionally by TV networks to a system that supplies scores of channels to over 20 million individual subscribers in the U.S. alone.
Satellite television started early in the morning, at 4:45 a.m., on July 10, 1962, when NASA put the Telstar I satellite into orbit. That very same evening, the telephone company AT&T transmitted both live and videotaped TV shows from Andover Maine to France. It was the first transmission of television across an ocean.
Telstar I only lasted eight months but other satellites followed. By 1975, HBO established the first operational satellite broadcast system on Satcom I. HBO sends its programming to cable television systems across the country using satellites.
A year later, an electrical engineer named Taylor Howard built his own satellite dish and receiver so he could watch HBO and other programs that were springing up on the “birds.” He tried to pay HBO for the programs he watched, but they turned him down. So, Howard published his plans, and within six years these relatively huge dishes were a $50 million industry. Many of the satellite customers were in rural areas where cable TV systems didn’t have cables.
HBO and other programmers responded by scrambling their signals in 1986 igniting a firestorm of protest from folks who were used to free programming. But the government sided with the broadcasters and eventually DirectTV and DISH Network signed up subscribers and eventually provided them with smaller dishes.
In 2003, the industry passed the 20 million subscribers mark. While the industry doesn’t separate out rural and urban subscribers, it’s a sure bet that many live in the country.
TV programming. In the 1970-71 TV season, there were only three television networks, and rural shows were a staple of all three –
- “Mayberry R.F.D” was in the top 20 shows and was a spin-off of the long-running “Andy Griffith Show” (on the air from 1960-’68).
- “Hee Haw” was also in the top 20 and was a country music and humor show.
- “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres” were all in their last year after long, successful runs.
- “Lassie” was a perennial favorite and while the main character was a dog – played by a series of collies – the setting was a farm in the Midwest. The show was on CBS from 1953 to ’73.
- The westerns “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” were still in the top 10, while “The Men from Shiloh” (AKA “The Virginian”) was in the top 20 and “The High Chaparral” also explored historical rural themes.
- Country music stars Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Jim Nabors all had musical variety shows on TV that year.
Between 1970s and the turn of the millennium, there were many other rural TV shows that cracked the top 30 –
- “The Waltons” was perhaps the most successful rural television program and provided a healthy antidote to the rural horror movies in popular culture. The show featured a multigenerational farm family enduring the Depression in rural Virginia. The show aired from 1972 to ’81 with six television-movie sequels airing between 1982 and 1990.
- “McCloud” aired from 1970 to ’77 and, while it was set in New York rather than rural America, it presented Dennis Weaver as a law officer from Taos, New Mexico, dealing with urban crime using his rural common sense.
- “Little House on the Prairie” aired on NBC from 1974-’83 and was based on the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
- Bob Newhart had a successful urban show from 1972 to ’77, and then “moved to rural Vermont” for his second show “Newhart” from 1981-’90.
- “The Dukes of Hazzard” ran from 1979 to ’85 and starred … a car – a 1969 Dodge Charger called the General Lee – along with Bo and Luke, Daisy Duke, Boss Hogg and Rosco P. Coltrane.
- “Dallas” was rural in its setting only. The Ewings were a wealthy Texas oil and cattle ranching family. Even though the first few episodes were shot on location in Texas, ranching rarely became a plot point. Mostly the series revolved around wealth, sex, intrigue and power struggles. It ran from 1978 to ’91 and continues in foreign countries and in re-runs.
- “Falcon Crest” premiered in 1981 and was created by Earl Hamner, the creator of “The Waltons.” Like “Dallas,” the show was set in a rural place – the wine country of Northern California – but was mostly a sexy soap opera. It ran until 1990.
- “Twin Peaks” was set in a small Washington town and became a cult classic with its mysterious plot and characters. The show ran from 1990 to ’91.
- “Northern Exposure” won two consecutive Peabody awards for its “depict[ion] in a comedic and often poetic way, [of] the cultural clash between a transplanted New York doctor and the townspeople of fictional [rural] Cicely, Alaska.” The series ran from 1990 to ’94 and was in the top 20 for three of those seasons.
- In the late 1990s and 2000s, there were few prime time television shows concerned with rural themes or settings. The only western on was “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.”
- There was a notable parody of rural life when “The Simple Life” plunked down young, rich celebrities Paris Hilton and Nichole Richie into various rural settings. The two women – who had never worked a day in their lives – were asked to do farm chores, clean rural houses and work as camp counselors. The show ran on Fox for 53 episodes from 2003 to 2007.
- Then, in 2006, “Men in Trees” premiered and several commentators characterized it as “Sex in the City” moves to “Northern Exposure.” Anne Heche starred as a New York relationship coach who gets dumped by her boyfriend while on a book tour stop in Alaska. She decides to stay and gets involved in the town’s rural characters. ABC decided they didn’t want to be involved anymore after two seasons and 36 episodes.
Apparently, with fewer and fewer people actually living in rural America, the nation’s television executives don’t find stories about rural America as compelling anymore.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.