'M*A*S*H' Doc Makes Claim That Show 'Changed Television'

Can a single TV show “change television”?

This claim is made every once in a while. Most recently, the subject arose in the commentary surrounding the death of Norman Lear earlier this month.

Did his TV shows -- “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” etc. -- change television? Some people think so. It can certainly be argued that, yes, they did, at least for a while.

How about America at large? Did the tone and content of Lear’s shows “change America” too? My own opinion is: Probably not. I just cannot give that much credit to a TV show.

Now, another TV show is being positioned as a television-changer -- “M*A*S*H,” in a new two-hour documentary coming to Fox on New Year’s night, January 1.



The claim is made in the very title of the show: “M*A*S*H: The Comedy That Changed Television.”

This raises the question: Can more than one show “change television” in the same era? And if so, how? 

The run of “M*A*S*H” from 1972 to 1983 on CBS coincided with the run of “All in the Family” from 1971 to 1979, also on CBS.

The two-hour “M*A*S*H” documentary on Fox was years in the making. This explains how the show can contain “new” interviews with some of the show’s participants who are now dead.

To their credit, the producers -- John Scheinfeld (who also directed it) and Andy Kaplan -- got just about everybody, living or dead.

They are: Alan Alda (Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce), Gary Burghoff (Cpl. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly), William Christopher (Father Francis Mulcahy), Jamie Farr (Cpl./Sgt. Maxwell Q. “Max” Klinger), Mike Farrell (Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt), Wayne Rogers (Capt. “Trapper” John McIntyre), Loretta Swit (Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan), and executive producers Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe. 

Wayne Rogers died in 2015, William Christopher in 2016, Gene Reynolds in 2020, and Burt Metcalfe in 2022.

To be fair, I have not yet watched the show. Fox provided access to a screener just this past Monday. 

For all I know, the documentary makes a persuasive case for “M*A*S*H” as a TV agent of change.

And even if it doesn’t, “M*A*S*H” was an important show anyway. It was very well-made and very popular. 

The show’s two-and-a-half hour finale on February 28, 1983, drew an audience estimated by some at 125 million viewers. In the Nielsen currency of the time, the episode scored a 60.2 rating and a 77 share.

But after the “M*A*S*H”-mania came and went, TV resorted to what it had always done – namely, airing shows that didn’t change anything.

By the following season -- 1983-84 -- the only sitcom in TV’s top 10 was “Kate and Allie” (eighth).

The rest of the list was, in order: “Dallas, “60 Minutes,” “Dynasty,” “The A-Team,” “Simon & Simon,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “Falcon Crest,” “Hotel” and “Cagney & Lacey.”

There were no meaningful military comedies or family sitcoms centered on the social issues of the day. A “M*A*S*H” sequel, “AfterMASH,” came and went.

Claims of these kinds of sweeping changes often strike me as hyperbolic, particularly in the titling of books. 

Yesterday, I went in search of books with titles and subtitles suggesting that the books’ subjects “changed America,” sometimes “forever.” On the Barnes & Noble web site, there were nine pages of them.

Some of the books can stake at least some claim to this assertion. These are the ones that cover events such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line, and Prohibition (well, maybe).

But others really stretch the point. One book title posits that a relationship between U.S. Grant and Mark Twain was a “friendship that changed America.” Maybe it was. What do I know?

Another book title says Hank Aaron’s home run record “changed America.” Another book avers that a little-known kidnapping in Philadelphia in 1876 was “the kidnapping that changed America.”

The 1968 presidential election in which Nixon beat Humphrey was “the election that changed America.” Other books about other presidential elections make the same claim.

Another book title was eye-catching. It was “Mason Jar Nation: The Jars That Changed America.”

That sounds credible to me, for where would America be without Mason Jars?

“M*A*S*H: The Comedy That Changed Television” airs Monday, January 1, at 8 p.m. Eastern on Fox. “M*A*S*H” photo courtesy of MeTV.

6 comments about "'M*A*S*H' Doc Makes Claim That Show 'Changed Television'".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 21, 2023 at 10:16 a.m.

    They may not have changed America, Adam, but they certainly refelcted the surging emotions stirred up by the Viet Nam War, the civil rights crusade , etc. and this was a large part of their success. Now, for the first time these issues were presented openly on national TV. And viewers responded just as they had in the late-1950s when the westerns and police/ detective shows came to our screens. We were tired of the live varieties, game shows, dramatic anthologies, etc. and  wanted "action" on our TV screens. "Gunsmoke", "The Untouchables", "77 Sunset Strip", gave us what we wanted---so we watched and they became hits.

  2. Leo Kivijarv from PQ Media, December 21, 2023 at 1:38 p.m.

    You ask, "Can more than one show change television?" Of course. I Love Lucy was the first to be shot on film and they were the first to own the rights to the show for syndication. The coverage of the Kennedy assissination changed the way news operators covered major events, as did Nightline a little over 15 years later that led to CNN (not to menion 60 minutes), Hill Street Blues gave us the moveable portale cameras in drama shows, Candid Camera gave us reality programming, Seasame Street rewrote how to do children's programming, mini-series like Roots gave us binge watching on streaming services. Add the niche cable network's first programs on ESPN and MTV, among others. The list could go on on and on.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 21, 2023 at 1:50 p.m.

    Correcting a typo in my reply's first sentance, I meant  , "changed American TV", not ," changed America".

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 21, 2023 at 2:03 p.m.

    There are so many examples, Leo. For instance consider the way that the original AFL football games were presented---with hand held cameras on the sidelines and even peeking in on the huddles---all copied by the NFL and others. Or the way the VietNam War was covered---with reporters embedded with the troops in front line actions. Or  the first Nixon-Kennedy POTUS debate. Or the Army Vs. MacArthy hearings. Or the Moon landing. Or, in the reality category, "COPs". Or over the past twenty years, "TV news" shows---as on Fox and, later MSNBC---switching to hard edged commentary and the attack mode, rather than just reporting the news. Or, again, with news, the"happy news" concept where various anchors and reporters pretend to be chums on the air and exchange comments, jokes, etc. ---a format I first saw on WABC-TV in New York but which was soon copied all over the country. The list is seemingly endless.

  5. Leo Kivijarv from PQ Media, December 21, 2023 at 2:49 p.m.

    Ed, I agree that the list could go on, from I Spy, Soap, Flip Wilson, Smothers Borthers, Meet the Press, First World Series broadcast, Wide WOrld of Sports, whatever was the first Spanish-language show on US TV, etc. You and I together could probably put a list of the 1,000 shows and/or programs that changed America TV (I'm old enough to remember not having a television in the household).

  6. David Scardino from TV & Film Content Development replied, December 21, 2023 at 2:52 p.m.

    Since "60 Minutes" came on the air in 1968, and "Nightline" in 1980, it's hard to see how "Nightline" "led" to "60 Minutes." My memory, and I was just finishing up my ABC career at the time, was that in 1979 reports on the Iranian hostage situation were preempting our late night line-up. It was those, I believe, that evolved into "Nightline " which debuted with that title in 1980. 

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