'M*A*S*H' finale 30th anniversary : The inside story behind the most-watched TV episode of all time
Consider these numbers as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Feb. 28, 1983, series finale of the classic military sitcom "M*A*S*H" today: The episode, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," drew nearly 106 million viewers. The population of the United States in 1983: 233 million, meaning close to half of the country was watching this TV event unfold.
[Related: Check out our 'M*A*S*H' infographic]
Today's top-rated broadcast network sitcoms, "The Big Bang Theory" and "Two and a Half Men," routinely attract millions of viewers each week, too. Tens of millions. Outside of a sporting event or live coverage of a national crisis, in fact, it's almost impossible to imagine that 100 million Americans will be tuned in to the same TV show at the same time ever again.
Even series finales of other beloved, wildly popular comedies couldn't touch the "M*A*S*H" finale numbers. When Sam and Diane and the "Cheers" crew called it quits in 1993, 84 million viewers tuned in. And when Jerry and George and Kramer and Elaine said so long to primetime five years later, 76 million viewers watched. No other TV series finales have drawn even half the viewers that the "M*A*S*H" ender earned.
"It was a phenomenon," "M*A*S*H" star Jamie Farr, who played the cross-dressing, Section 8-seeking, Toledo-loving Maxwell Klinger, tells Yahoo! TV. "It was a great show. It was well written, well directed, well acted, and well watched. And still well watched."
In anticipation of "M*A*S*H" leaving the airwaves, the New York Times reported, psychologists fretted about how saying goodbye and farewell to the show would affect fans. Local officials in some towns canceled evening meetings so that people could be home to watch the finale; this was in the early days of VCRs and, of course, long before DVRs. People threw "'M*A*S*H' bashes," reports the Times, and even before spoiler websites existed, the National Enquirer had published details about the mental breakdown of Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and the hearing loss of Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) before the finale aired.
[Related: Must-know 'M*A*S*H' trivia]
So many were tuned in to the two-and-a-half-hour "M*A*S*H" finale that, as Emmy, Golden Globe, Humanitas Prize, and Directors Guild of America award winner Alan Alda told TV Guide, "the next day, the papers said that so many people had flushed their toilets at the same moment during the commercials that the New York City water supply was seriously in trouble."
Alda, whose Dr. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce shared a long-awaited kiss with nurse Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit) in the finale, joked that the 30-second smooch was one of the costliest kisses in TV history. A 1983 Time magazine story about the finale cited the cost of a 30-second commercial during the series ender at $450,000, so the Hawkeye/Hot Lips pucker-up was worth almost half a million dollars.
Watch the "M*A*S*H" finale promo:
"It was called the most expensive kiss ever on TV," Alda said. "So between that and nearly shutting down the New York City water supply, we made our mark on history."