Let this TV fact blow your mind for a minute: Next month will mark 50 years since “M*A*S*H” premiered on CBS. And consider that the Korean War comedy debuted just 19 years after the end of the actual Korean War.
For my money, however, the most amazing thing about “M*A*S*H” is how hugely popular it was in Utah.
I mean, on the one hand, that’s not a surprise. “M*A*S*H” was an excellent show — great writing, great cast, great performances — that was popular across the country. It was among the most-watched shows on TV when it was still producing episodes. It was nominated for more than 100 Emmys and won 14.
The series finale remains the most-watched scripted program in American television history. It averaged 105.9 million viewers, and that number swelled to 121.6 million for the final minutes — more than half the country’s population at the time. The only telecasts that have drawn larger audiences are eight Super Bowls, humankind’s first steps on the moon and Richard Nixon’s resignation speech.
None of which is, in retrospect, more surprising than the success “M*A*S*H” found in Utah, where syndicated reruns absolutely dominated late-night TV.
(Huynh | AP File Photo) In this Oct. 22, 1981, file photo, Jamie Farr, from front left, plugs his ears as cast members of the “M.A.S.H.” television series cast Harry Morgan, Loretta Swit, William Christopher and, from back from left, Mike Farrell, Alan Alda and David Ogden Stiers celebrate during a party on the set of the popular CBS program in Los Angeles.
KSL-Ch. 5 added “M*A*S*H” reruns at 10:35 p.m. — after the late news — on March 31, 1980, and I’m not sure there are words to describe how successful it was. The show regularly attracted more than 40% of the viewers in its time slot. It was not at all unusual for more Utahns to be watching KSL than all the other local stations — combined. And it usually wasn’t close.
Nationally, Johnny Carson was the undisputed and virtually unchallenged King of Late Night. In Utah, his “Tonight Show” got its butt kicked by “M*A*S*H.”
(Note to anyone who started watching TV in Utah in the past quarter century: KSL was a CBS affiliate and KUTV-Ch. 2 was an NBC affiliate until 1995, when they swapped networks.)
“M*A*S*H” was a ratings juggernaut and a big moneymaker for KSL well into the 1990s, which is why the station refused to move it when David Letterman moved to CBS in 1993 — the “Late Show” aired at 11:05 p.m. locally until 1994, when KSL finally relented.
“M*A*S*H” moved to 11:35 p.m., pushing “The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder” back to 12:05 a.m. And when KSL became an NBC affiliate in 1995, “M*A*S*H” aired after Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” but before “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
What took all this to another level is that “M*A*S*H” was a politically liberal show airing in a conservative state on the state’s most conservative TV station, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It’s been said — repeatedly and accurately — that “M*A*S*H” wasn’t really about the Korean War, it was about the Vietnam War. It was an anti-war show that premiered 2½ years before the United States evacuated its embassy in Saigon. And, throughout the run of the series, the rebellious “M*A*S*H” surgeons were almost always smart and right and relatable, and the Army regulars and politicians were almost always dumb and wrong and buffoonish.
Not only that, but the show’s heroes were not exactly paragons of virtue. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) and Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) were womanizers, and the latter two had wives back home. Other than the priest, the one “religious” character, Frank Burns (Larry Linville), was a total hypocrite who lied, cheated and was himself sleeping with Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit). Even married, straight-arrow B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) had an affair.
Seemingly everybody drank. And gambled. Pushed back against authority. Reveled in bawdiness. There was even a cross-dresser, Klinger (Jamie Farr).
Did the licentiousness and political content of the show go over the heads of Utah viewers? Were local viewers living vicariously through the characters? Was “M*A*S*H” was just so good that conservative Utah viewers ignored all that?
Maybe it was all of the above.
It’s also worth pointing out that TV and America were different when “M*A*S*H” ruled the airwaves. Certainly, there were political divisions at the time, but Fox News didn’t sign on until 1996, when it began widening those cracks into chasms.
If “M*A*S*H” occupied the same kind of prominent place on KSL’s schedule today, who would be surprised if right-wingers were protesting its political content? There would be conspiracy theories and letter-writing (email-writing?) campaigns and maybe even protests outside KSL’s downtown headquarters.
It’s crazy to think that we’re more unsettled politically than we were when the United States was still fighting in Vietnam, but maybe we are.
At any rate, “M*A*S*H” is still a great show. All 251 episodes are streaming on Hulu. MeTV (KCSG and KTVX’s alternate channel) air episodes Sunday through Friday at 6 and 6:30 p.m. TV Land airs episodes from 10 a.m. to noon most weekdays. KSTU-Ch. 13 airs episodes on Saturdays at 3 and 3:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 and 4:30 p.m.
It was a period piece set in the early 1950s, so it hasn’t really aged. With the exception of the laugh track, which is grating on the ear five decades later.
And for those of us old enough to remember when “M*A*S*H” episodes were new, it’s astonishing to think that there are generations who are, at best, vaguely familiar with the show.
They’re the lucky ones. They can watch and it will all be new to them.
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