“M*A*S*H” was a singular show that set viewership records with its series finale. And for a Studio 10 feature on “M*A*S*H” memories, star Alan Alda talked about why television will never repeat their finale’s achievement again.
After 11 seasons of “M*A*S*H,” the series finale aired on Feb. 28, 1983. Roughly 77 percent of the total television viewing audience watched that show, according to History.com (https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/final-episode-of-mash-airs).
Could television ever be like that again?, Alda was asked on the Studio 10 special.
“No, it can’t be, because broadcasting is broken up into too many fragmented parts,” Alda said. “We had just three networks at the time. So almost everything was shown on those networks. Now, you have networks, you have cable, you have Internet. So the audience is spread out. And almost never do you have that many people watching one thing at one time. Half the country was watching our final show, at the same moment.”
Could A Show Like ‘M*A*S*H’ Be Made Today?
We’ve established that no show is likely to match “M*A*S*H” as viewership goes. But what about artistically? Could “M*A*S*H” be updated for the 21st century? That’s what The Hollywood Reporter wondered in its “M*A*S*H” untold history project. THR asked the series creators, writers and actors whether a show like “M*A*S*H” – which, with its antiwar undercurrent, still resonated with more than half of a fiercely divided country – could exist nowadays.
“It could if intelligently and carefully done without being too silly or morose,” series co-creator Gene Reynolds said. “But you have to get a guy like Alan [Alda], someone that has star quality and can be a comedian.”
Executive producer Burt Metcalfe said that the lessons of works like “M*A*S*H” went unheeded, and war remains a part of America’s political landscape. Moreover, he pointed out that “M*A*S*H” dealt with universal themes, so a show like “M*A*S*H” could presumably still be relevant today.
“I’d like M*A*S*H to be remembered for its statement about war, though sadly we’ve learned nothing,” Metcalfe said. “It’s life. It’s not all perfect and hopefully never all that sad. That we could portray that is very gratifying.”
Alda Says American Culture Has Changed
Alda, for his part, said America is a different country now than it was then. He argued that U.S. culture has changed since the 1970s and ’80s, when the show aired.
“We were doing the show in a certain moment in time,” he told THR. “The country is in some ways as divided now as it was then, but there were different currents in the culture then.”
Major Margaret Houlihan actress Loretta Swit agreed. She said a show like “M*A*S*H” couldn’t be sold to networks today.
“So much has changed,” Swit said. “TV, the whole concept of reality shows and the number of channels. We weren’t a military show and I don’t think I’d want to watch one about behind the lines in Afghanistan.”
Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps viewers’ expectations have changed as what’s available on TV has changed with the times. But one thing’s for sure: no show today can hope to outdo the “M*A*S*H” series finale.