How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

21
M*A*S*H

Socially Relevant Comedy

NOEL MURRAY

Abstract: Long hailed as one of the most groundbreaking and politically engaged
sitcoms, M*A*S*H is a key text from 1970s television’s “turn toward relevance.” Noel
Murray, writing in a journalistic style for the popular online criticism site The A. V.
Club
, discusses a distinctive episode from the series to highlight how the show used
the past to talk about the present, and how we might look at the program’s legacy
on the rising culture wars of the 1980s.

Though we hold the ideal of the free press as sacrosanct in the United States, the supremacy of the First Amendment is sometimes challenged when it comes to television. Music, movies, fine art, and printed material can be produced and distributed independently by anyone who has the means, but there are only so many notches on a television dial and so much space on the broadcasting spectrum, which means that the major broadcasting conglomerates have to be licensed by governmental agencies with the authority to squelch broadcasting they find offensive or seditious—or at least to apply enough pressure that the networks make changes “voluntarily.” The nature of the fight over who has the right (or privilege) to air his or her opinion has changed over the decades, but the fight itself still rages.

Case in point: in 1967, the San Francisco Chronicle and CBS Television commissioned a documentary called Inside North Vietnam, made by British journalist Felix Greene, which showed the North Vietnamese as bloody but unbowed, and depicted them in a far more human light than any report that was coming out of the U.S. State Department at the time. CBS declined to air the film, but licensed it to the National Educational Television network, the forerunner of PBS. When news leaked that Inside North Vietnam was going to be broadcast, a group of congressmen drafted a letter of protest to NET president John White, suggesting that his decision to air “Communist propaganda” made him unfit to serve in a post funded by tax dollars.

-195-

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