When I get back to 1966 in television next week, I know I am going to have a couple good shows to write about. Most of the time with these, I have a sense of when shows were airing originally, but I don’t know when they debuted or ended. That’s true for 1971 certainly. Oh, I know I have watched shows that aired in 1971, but off the top of my head I don’t know any of its debuts or endings. Now, though, I am about to delve into that for the purposes of this article. We’re all about to get a little wiser about the TV of 1971.
This was the year the last television ad aired on American television, and all in all 1971 is defined by endings in television. Have you ever heard of the “Rural Purge?” This was an event wherein CBS (one of only three networks at the time, remember) completely changed its television landscape. They wanted to get urban and cut ties with anything that had any sense of “country” to it.
In 1971 CBS cancelled Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D., and The Beverly Hillbillies. Additionally they gave Hee Haw and Lassie the boot, with both shows heading into syndication instead. This was a huge change of course for CBS. Those weren’t the only shows to end in 1971, though. This year we also said goodbye to That Girl and Hogan’s Heroes. I often joke I’d like to reboot Hogan’s Heroes. Imagine, in 2021, a sitcom set at a Nazi POW camp.
There were some notable new shows in 1971 as well. I do want to shout out Masterpiece Theater and Soul Train. However, there are two shows to focus on, one I don’t really like but is super important, and one I do really enjoy and has had a resurgence in recent years.
CBS may have gone through a Rural Purge, but that year they also debuted All in the Family. That’s one of the seminal sitcoms. Many consider it one of the best ever. It was frank and tackled issues. I just don’t think it’s all that funny. Is it important? Sure. Absolutely. It’s a seminal sitcom. I personally would also say it isn’t a very good sitcom.
The other show to debut in 1971 is Columbo. Now, there were two “pilot” episodes made prior to the debut of the first season as part of The NBC Mystery Movie rotation. The first of those pilots debuted in 1968, but that was more a TV movie than anything. It has been recontextualized as a pilot since. The second “pilot” aired in March of 1971 and that September the first season officially began with “Murder by the Book,” which was directed by a young Steven Spielberg.
Columbo has become such a big show the last couple of years, which is interesting. As a procedural, though, I really enjoy it. Mostly that’s up to Peter Falk’s performance as Columbo. I’ve written about it before, but you can’t remake Columbo in any traditional sense, because nobody is replicating Falk’s performance. There’s no point to trying.
We lost, as Green Acres actor Pat Buttram put it, “any show with a tree in it” in 1971, but we also gained a brilliant detective in a crumpled raincoat. TV gives, and TV takes away.