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What was I doing the night of Feb. 28, 1983?


THEN AND NOW Top-ranked network series telecasts of all time: 1. M*A*S*H finale (Feb. 28, 1983)—77 audience share, 50 million viewers. 2. Dallas “Who Shot J.R.” answered (Nov. 21, 1980)—76 share, 42 million. 3. Roots Part 8 (Jan. 30, 1977)—71 share, 36 million. Combined three-network audience share (ABC/CBS/NBC): 1983: 81 percent of viewing public 2007: 32 percent of viewing public Top-ranked network series, by household ratings: 1983: 60 Minutes—25.5 rating (live viewing only) 2007: American Idol—17.3 rating (includes live and same-day time-shifted viewing) (Note: In 1983, a total of 28 series exceeded a 17.3 season rating.) Number of homes with TV: 1983: 83 million 2007: 111 million Cable penetration in U.S. homes (does not include satellite TV): 1983: 37 percent 2007: 58 percent VCR/DVD penetration in U.S. homes: 1984: 12 percent 2007: 85 percent (SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research)

Maybe spinning the new Prince record 1999. Sewing in bigger shoulder pads. Or drooling over those ultramodern VCR recorders. I might even have been watching a TV promo for a new show called The A-Team during NBC’s Monday Night Movie.


Whatever kept me occupied, I wasn’t doing what folks in more than three-quarters of American homes with TV were doing that night.


Watching the finale of CBS’ hit sitcom M*A*S*H.


Twenty-five years later, the series’ 2 ½-hour wrap up episode “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” remains the No. 1-ranked network telecast of all time in Nielsen’s household ratings. It attracted a whopping 77 percent share of that night’s viewers, more than 50 million people.


Compare that to the end of Friends. While its 2004 finale drew nearly 53 million viewers, two decades of growth in the number of TV households actually left it with a much lower share of the audience: just 46 percent.


In other words, the M*A*S*H finale was a Big-Time Tube Event of the type that, despite those shrieking “must-see!” promos, just doesn’t happen anymore.


It’s not hard to see why. When the M*A*S*H finale aired, most American homes had access to only three broadcast networks. Cable TV was in its infancy, limited to maybe two dozen channels such as CNN, ESPN, USA, TBS, HBO and MTV, with hardly any original entertainment shows. Such current biggies as Discovery, Comedy Central, FX, AMC and TNT didn’t exist.


Practically all viewing went to the big three networks—Fox wouldn’t launch until 1987—with only negligible competition from early VCRs, primitive video games and the occasional unwieldy home computer. TV sets still were pricey, too, so families watched together. Friends and office colleagues savored the same shows.


And they’d all been watching M*A*S*H for more than a decade since the Korean War medical unit’s wacky antics and pointed drama debuted in 1972. The show spent its second season in CBS’ legendary Saturday night lineup with All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett and later helped establish CBS’ Monday comedy block alongside Newhart. By 1976, M*A*S*H had settled permanently into Nielsen’s top 10.


But a half-dozen years later, even centerpiece star Alan Alda was ready to bow out. He’d held down the fort after the departures of original co-stars McLean Stevenson, Wayne Rogers, Larry Linville and even Gary (“Radar”) Burghoff. Alda had increasingly taken on writing and directing chores, in addition to playing Hawkeye Pierce.


He did all that for the series’ finale, which ran an unprecedented 2 ½ hours by itself, not including the sort of tribute shows that stretched the ends of Cheers and Seinfeld to evening-long marathons. Alda was among the eight writers of the final script, and he directed the epic in which he also played the dominant role.


Probably this workload was not the best idea. But then neither was making the finale five times longer than the usual episode. When I finally pulled out my M*A*S*H DVDs and watched the finale for the first time this week, I wasn’t exactly blown away. The pace felt sluggish. The plethora of writers showed, in varied scenes that seemed to represent completely different intentions.


Alda’s Hawkeye spent most of the show sullen and combative in a psychiatric hospital isolated from his compatriots. And this was a guy who lived for riffing off his Army antagonists and the war he hated. I get that it finally got to him. But the finale wasn’t the place for him to melt down. Our final taste of Hawkeye is pretty sour.


Ditto his entire-series colleague Loretta Swit as Margaret Houlihan, who gets into a shrill snit with David Ogden Stiers’ stuffy Winchester as the war winds down. The Klinger-marries-Soon-Lee arc is interesting, but much of the show feels artificially engineered to provide each character a subplot in the spotlight. The finale is certainly dramatic—it didn’t use a laugh track as usual—but it isn’t quite the M*A*S*H we’d come to know and love.


See for yourself. Hallmark Channel airs the entire finale March 7 (5-8 p.m. EST).

Tagged as: m*a*s*h
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