M*A*S*H was produced by Fox Television (it was standard practice in a film contract that television rights went to the studio that made a film). Its creators (I shall use the terms "creators" and "producers" interchangeably because nearly all of the principal personnel worked as producers, writers, and directors) brought it to CBS, which had just begun televising the two other most intelligent and revolutionary sitcoms of the seventies, All in the Family (1971–79) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–77).
Though more open-minded than the other major networks, CBS still
had its rules. In his definitive study of television comedy, Comic Visions, David Marc cites a CBS market research study that concluded that the three kinds of characters Americans would not watch on sitcoms were women who were divorced, men who wore mustaches, and anyone from New York City (Marc, 167). In such a climate it is amazing what M*A*S*H got away with. One battle that M*A*S*H 's creative team did not win involved the laugh track. Despite the M*A*S*H producers' vigorous resistance to canned laughter, CBS retained it except in most of the operating room scenes. (However, the laugh track was mixed at a lower level than usual relative to the rest of the sound track.)
CBS clearly felt some ambivalence toward its new product. One measure of a network's support of a new program is its willingness to sustain low ratings to see if the program will catch hold. The network did agree (after sustained lobbying on the part of the show's creators) to continue the show for a second season despite the fact that M*A*S*H had finished in the bottom half of the prime-time ratings during its first season. However, CBS may have been responsible for M*A*S*H 's slow start in the first place: they had slotted it for viewing at 8:00 P.M. on Sundays, which was a "family hour" slot. But once the network executives did make a commitment to M*A*S*H for a second season, they gave it their best slot: 8:30 P.M. Saturday, between All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore. M*A*S*H moved up to fourth place and stayed in the top twenty shows for a decade, despite being bounced around to eight different time slots.
Perhaps an indication of industrywide ambivalence toward the program was its results in the competition for Emmy Awards. M*A*S*H was nominated for a large number of Emmy Awards (ninety-nine) but won only fourteen, despite its reputation within the industry as one of the best shows on television. M*A*S*H producers have said that the relative paucity of these awards (it won many other awards based on audience popularity) reflected the inability of the industry to deal with something uncategorizable. M*A*S*H was pigeonholed as a sitcom. However, the producers' favorite episodes were often their most serious in tone, and it was these shows they submitted for nomination (Prelutsky, 19).