M*A*S*H really wasn’t a popular show in its debut season. It took weeks for one of the best series in TV history to find an audience.
Alan Alda said if the same set of circumstances happened today, no network would’ve been as patient as CBS with the quirky comedy/drama about a medical unit in the Korean War.
Alda, who starred as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, discussed how fortunate the show was during an interview in November, 2000. The Archive of American Television documented Alda’s thoughts on the show.
“You can’t ignore the collection of people who were brought together by (M*A*S*H producer) Gene Reynolds,” said Alda, who also directed and wrote episodes of M*A*S*H. “The writing and the directing and the acting talent was terrific. We also had, at a certain point, we’d achieved enough popularity that the network put us on a prominent place. That had something to do with it, a prominent place on the schedule.
“But even before that, the network liked the show enough, people at the network liked the show enough, to keep it on the air even though it wasn’t doing well in the ratings,” the M*A*S*H star said. “Today, they cancel shows like during the first commercial. They don’t stick with them. They stuck with us for the whole season and we were at the bottom of the list. We used to joke that other shows were in the top 10, we were in the top 70 right down til we started going into the reruns.”
CBS Could Afford to be Patient with M*A*S*H Because Its Other Shows Dominated
M*A*S*H started in 1972 on Sunday nights. So let’s set the TV landscape for the 1972-73 season. CBS was in good position to be patient enough with M*A*S*H to wait for the audience to discover a show. The network sported four of the top five shows in the country. All in the Family on CBS ruled television.
The network placed Hawaii 5-0 at No. 3, followed by comedies Maude and Bridget Loves Bernie at No. 4 and 5. NBC’s Sanford and Son, at No. 2, was the lone show to break up the CBS dominance. Plus, the network also had the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Gunsmoke at No. 7 and 8.
Plus, the TV schedule wasn’t as competitive as it is today. There were only three networks vying for a viewer’s attention. And, there were only 65 million households with a television. ABC was the network in trouble that season. It’s top show was Marcus Welby, M.D., which ranked 13th. Today’s TV market, with countless cable networks and streaming services, splits a TV pie with 121 million households.
But back to M*A*S*H, the network gave it a Saturday night time slot the next season. And the show zoomed through the ratings, ending the season at No. 4.
And by the second season, everyone loved M*A*S*H. It won Emmys for outstanding comedy series. Alda got the nod for best actor, with Jackie Cooper winning best director.
In the case of M*A*S*H, patience really was a fortunate virtue no network can afford today.