The death of Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Sherman Potter on “M.A.S.H.” from 1975 to the show’s conclusion in 1983, reveals the decline of mass culture, which has been one of the major themes of this blog. At various times yesterday, Morgan’s obituary was the most viewed article on NewYorkTimes.com, which is incredible for the death of an actor who played a supporting role in a show that went off the air nearly thirty years ago. Of course, “M.A.S.H.” has lived on in reruns since, but it demonstrates the incredible followings that television programs could achieve before cable and how they provided a unifying culture for much of the nation.
With only three networks, hit shows such as “M.A.S.H.” drew ratings that are inconceivable in the 500+ channel universe of today. I saw an article a few years ago that showed that “American Idol,” the biggest hit of the last decade, has an audience comparable to that of “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” a middling show which aired for four years in the 1980s. Most famously, the last episode of “M.A.S.H.,” “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” which aired in 1983, remains the most watched non-sports program of all-time in terms of total viewers, a record that is likely to last for some time, even with the considerable growth in the population. Water usage in some cities increased dramatically during commercials for the final episode, as the nation collectively went to the bathroom (few VCRS and no DVRS in 1983!) Indeed, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen’s” overall record for total viewership lasted until 2010, when it was broken by Super Bowl XLIV between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.
The long reign and domination of ABC, NBC, and CBS meant that large swaths of the country watched the same or similar programs. There were fewer differences in viewership based on race, age, or ethnicity. Most Americans watched Lucy Ricardo have her baby, Richard Kimball finally catch the one-armed man, Walter Cronkite narrate the moon landing, as well as discover that J.R. Ewing was shot by his secretary. Gradually, though, cable networks emerged to cover specific subjects, like CNN for news and ESPN for sports. This specialization evolved to news networks for liberals (MSNBC) and conservatives (FOX News) and sports networks for football (NFL Network) and golf (Golf Channel). Today, even the broadcast networks tend to target niche markets, with Fox pursuing the 18-49 age group while CBS focuses on older viewers. This has led to some of the fracturing of the culture I discussed in my earlier entry on the music industry; people no longer listen to the same artists or watch the same television programs.
Of course, one would not want to get too nostalgic, as anyone who has tried to watch 10 minutes of “CHiPS” or “Knight Rider” in recent years can attest. Cable has brought about a flowering of quality programs as HBO, FX, and AMC, have produced innovative fare like “The Wire,” “Nip/Tuck,” and “Mad Men.” The broadcast networks responded with shows like “The West Wing,” “Lost,” and “30 Rock,” programs that likely would not have lasted long a generation ago. Colonel Potter’s death is a reminder of what was lost and what we have also gained.