Friday, March 11, 2011

Was MASH ever asked to change its title?

It’s March 11th. To celebrate the Meiji Japanese government officially annexing the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1872, here are some Friday questions:

John starts it off:

Back in the 1960s and early 70s, I remember shows that went into daytime/evening re-runs while still showing on network were usually renamed, under the idea that the public was too dumb to figure out the difference between a first-run prime-time episode and one airing opposite the 6 p.m. news. Supposedly, that changed in 1978 because for some odd reason, Fox had sold the syndication rights to M*A*S*H as "M*A*S*H", and the story was CBS was facing the prospect of actually having to change the name of the prime-time show before a deal was reached.

Since that was about the time you and David were the head writers, is that true? Was the 1979-80 season ever close to being renamed something like "The A*L*A*N A*L*D*A Show"?

No. There was never any serious discussion of changing the name of MASH. I mean, seriously, what else could you call it? THE POTTER BARN? THOSE WACKY MEDICOS OF THE 4077? MEATBALL SURGERY? IF IT’S 1951 THIS MUST BE KOREA? (I’m sure you guys will chip in a few others.)

Before MASH went into syndication CBS aired reruns of the show Friday nights at midnight. This was 1977 or 78 as I recall. The following year it went into full syndication. MASH is rather unusual in that generally shows go into syndication and after the first three years their numbers go down (which is understandable. How many times can you watch the same episode of SILVER SPOONS?). But MASH’s numbers remained pretty steady. And CONTINUE to stay high, even after thirty years.

Of course, no show will EVER surpass the staying power of I LOVE LUCY. Can you imagine? Those episodes are sixty years old?  Do you think in 2071 people will be watching TWO AND A HALF MEN reruns and saying, “Can you believe Charlie Sheen is 106 years-old”?

But you’re right, John. In the ‘60s and ‘70s networks were concerned their primetime series would suffer competing with themselves in syndication so they often changed the names. The one that pops to mind is GUNSMOKE. In syndication it was called MARSHALL DILLON.  (Reminds me of that old '50s oldie -- they call me Speedo but my real name is Mr. Earl.)

And then there's YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH.  That became THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and yet no one called it either.  For most of us, that show will always be SGT. BILKO.

MASH certainly proved that having a show run in syndication concurrent with its original run does not hurt first-run ratings. MASH’s primetime numbers were never higher than its last three seasons.

And an even better example is WINGS. After several years it went on the USA NETWORK. And they didn’t just play it five times a week; they played it five hundred times a week. It was a joke! USA played nothing but WINGS. The result: more people discovered the show and its primetime ratings shot up. Of course, in this case, it sort of helped that the show was terrific.

From bettyd:

Approximately how many staff will be out of work when a typical show stops production for this reason or because of cancellation? Of course Two and a half Men has a small cast, but I assume it is the same number of camera people, writers, etc for most 3 camera sit-coms.

Generally about two hundred people.  Think about that the next time you trash a hotel room, Charlie.

And finally, Anonymous (please leave a name) asks:

So when you write, do you write for yourself or do you write for an audience in middle America?

Both but myself first. And it’s not middle America, it’s whoever the intended audience is. Jokes that work on FRASIER might not have the same zing on HANNAH MONTANA.

But here’s the thing about “middle America” – everyone assumes they’re cornpones. On MASH we did all kinds of sophisticated jokes and literary references. Where were our best ratings? Those cornpones are a lot sharper than you think.

What’s your question? And again, congratulations to the Meijis.

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