The popularity war between M*A*S*H writers and rival TV execs had one very public battle
Audiences laughed hysterically watching top TV geniuses trade insults during a fiery public debate at Writers Guild headquarters in 1977.
By the end of the Seventies, top TV producers had developed some pretty strong opinions on what made for great television.
According to M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart and fellow screenwriters of shows on CBS like Good Times, their network was pushing the envelope and creating worthwhile programming while they saw ABC as coasting on less culturally significant material.
This debate being held behind the scenes of studios in Hollywood exploded into the public eye in 1977 when a public meeting was held at the Writers Guild headquarters.
On one side of the debate were ABC Television president Fred Pierce and ABC Entertainment president Fred Silverman. On the other side was M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart and screenwriter Richard Powell.
Powell tossed out the first insult, calling Pierce and Silverman "rug salesman," and insisting that, "Freddie Silverman is widely acclaimed as a programming genius. But I have a certain feeling in my heart that if I brought him Hamlet, he’d tell me to put a dog in it."
Silverman did not hold his tongue, responding, "Yeah, well, as I recall, Dick, the last show you brought me was about a talking monkey."
Documenting the great TV debate was The Chicago Tribune, which reported that what followed was an onslaught of insults, barbs traded back and forth while the audience watched "the fireworks" in amazement.
It must’ve been as entertaining to watch this drama as the must-see TV they were so passionately debating.
At the heart of the debate was the notion that ABC was at the top of the ratings because of the popularity of TV shows like Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, which Gelbart and Powell claimed played it too safe to appease the broadest audiences.
Gelbart and Powell said if ABC was going to play it so safe, they should have taken the money earned from what they considered "schlock programming" and invested it into intellectual programming that challenged audiences and created more meaningful viewing experiences.
In defense of ABC, Pierce and Silverman pointed to critically acclaimed and culturally significant ABC mini-series like Roots and Washington: Behind Closed Doors as evidence to the contrary.
For writers like Gelbart, who won two Humanitas Prizes in his career, these mini-series were viewed as doing the bare minimum with ABC’s enormous wealth.
For Powell, who made a very creative career writing offbeat episodes of The Andy Griffith Show like "Three Wishes for Opie" and "The Lucky Letter," then graduating to contribute scripts for shows that turned cultural commentary into comedy like Hogan’s Heroes and M*A*S*H, ABC wasn’t stepping up enough to help evolve what TV audiences enjoyed.
Like M*A*S*H star Alan Alda, Powell lived the activism he wrote into episodes onscreen, advocating for human rights with his wife Alice.
In 1994, the Writers Guild awarded Powell the Morgan Cox Award, a top honor only bestowed on screenwriters who serve as a positive example of ideal service in their writing.
Although Silverman was less political in his programming choices, the next year in 1995 he too was given recognition for making positive changes in society through TV. He was awarded the Women in Film Lucy Award for his work enhancing how women are perceived on TV.
So in the end, nobody won the great TV debate, except maybe TV audiences who could watch M*A*S*H walk the tense line between comedy and drama on Mondays, followed by the lighter fare of easy laughs from Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley on Tuesdays.