Despite being a seminal comedy, MASH was almost canceled after its first season aired. MASH probably belongs in the dramedy section, because despite employing a laugh track during its early seasons (which the showrunners hated using) it wasn’t afraid to explore dark or controversial topics. While it never lost the laughs, MASH became more of a drama as it evolved, and broke ground in both major and minor ways. The season 3 death of Colonel Henry Blake, for instance, was one of the first times a network show killed off a character viewers had grown to love.
MASH’s finale is the most watched episode of scripted drama in TV history, which closed out the show after 11 seasons. MASH might have had the advantage of being based on a hit movie, but the TV adaptation toned down the more adult humor of the Robert Altman film. Like any comedy show, it took MASH time to develop its voice and identity. This also meant it took time for audiences to come around to its charms, which caused concern for CBS when it was nearing the end of the first season.
MASH’s Ratings Were Terrible During Season 1
In short, MASH suffered consistently poor ratings during its first season. The ratings were so bad that during the wrap party for season 1, some of the cast assumed they wouldn’t be seeing each other for season 2. As recounted in MASH’s 30th Anniversary Reunion special from 2002, star Alan Alda stated they were lucky that CBS felt it was a good show, and kept it on the air regardless of its dismal numbers. Former showrunner Larry Gelbert also noted that Babe Paley – the wife of then CBS head William Paley – really loved MASH, and personally championed her husband not to cancel it.
Re-Runs Turned MASH Into A Record-Breaking Hit
During its initial run, MASH lost out to rivals such as The Wonderful World of Disney. Alda feels that since audiences had already experienced other first-run shows, they gave MASH a second chance on re-runs. This saw its numbers steadily rise, to the point where CBS greenlit a second series. By then, the show’s success was assured, and in later years survived multiple cast member exits such as Gary Burghoff’s Radar leaving MASH during season 8 to remain one of the most watched shows on television.
In hindsight, it’s strange to consider how American TV would have developed had MASH had been killed prematurely. It may still be well-regarded but many of its best episodes or famous moments happened after the first series, including Blake’s death or its disturbing “Dreams” episode. Of course, it had its share of forgettable or outright terrible episodes, but it pioneered storytelling choices that many later sitcoms would adopt, including ditching the laugh track or exploring themes like trauma or PTSD. MASH was fortunate to have some champions who believed in its potential, and their fate more than paid off.