‘M*A*S*H’ said goodbye 40 years ago, with a finale for the ages

(CNN) “M*A*S*H” ran for 11 seasons, even though the Korean War, during which the CBS series was filmed, lasted three years. When the show finally ended 40 years ago – with a special 2.5-hour episode titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” – it set a ratings record that will never be matched, and in effect, has become virtually impossible in fragmented media. market that exists today.

Airing when there were still only three major networks (Fox didn’t tune in until 1986) and cable was in its infancy, the “M*A*S*H” finale drew 106 million viewers, still a record for any episodic series.

Even more amazing, the finale was watched in more than 60% of American homes, attracting the attention of more than three out of four televisions used (that’s its audience share), which means that all the other programmers might as well have been running a test pattern.

The population has grown significantly over the past four decades, so recent Super Bowls may exceed overall viewership. But no entertainment program has ever rivaled that “M*A*S*H” milestone, and in an age of countless networks and multiple streaming services, it seems safe to say none ever will. .

The accomplishments of “M*A*S*H” barely start and end with trivia about the notes. With its mix of war dramas and broad comedies, the show essentially created the template for what became known as “dramedy”, a hybrid of the two genres that became increasingly popular in the 80s. and which has continued until today.

The series has also changed and replaced major cast members throughout its run, often coming out stronger with the new additions.

The constants included star Alan Alda, who as former CBS executive turned scholar Jim McKairnes, now a television history professor at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote last year in a USA Today article marking the 50th anniversary of the show’s debut, exercised greater control of the series during the second half of its run.

Alan Alda, front row, with original “M*A*S*H” cast members Loretta Swit, Wayne Rogers and McLean Stevenson.

Doubling down as writer and director (and winning Emmys for both, in addition to acting), Alda helped helm “M*A*S*H” as a series — which, like the movie it’s about. it was based, was created during the Vietnam War – “drifted into broader social commentary on the human condition (PTSD, sexism, racism) and the general fog of war,” McKairnes said.

The finale itself underscored these qualities, including a devastating subplot involving a bus in peril that left Alda’s character, Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, “psychologically scarred and in need of guidance from the visiting psychologist, a recurring character played by Allan Arbus.

Other programs had splashy goodbyes in the years after “M*A*S*H” (the title, by the way, of a spin-off series that followed it), including “Seinfeld” and “Cheers”. ‘The Fugitive’ also set the bar high in 1967, five years before ‘M*A*S*H’ debuted, drawing 78 million viewers when its protagonist, Dr. Richard Kimble, finally caught up with the penguin. . he had long protested that he was his wife’s real murderer. “Roots” also swept through America and emptied restaurants for eight consecutive nights in 1977.

However, these kinds of shared viewing experiences have become increasingly rare. For more than a decade, “M*A*S*H” began with an image of helicopters ferrying casualties to 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (hence the acronym), and it ended, appropriately, by a shot of a helicopter heading in the opposite direction as the war, as well as the spectacle, finally came to an end.

This image remains appropriate, marking the end of a chapter in television history, as the era of three networks amassing huge viewerships almost by default was about to begin its own flight into the sunset. .

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