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.
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That's almost as bad as
"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."
The REAL expression, introduced to the American public by author Tom Wolfe in his book about Chuck Yeager and the Mercury astronauts, is "push the OUTSIDE OF the envelope," i.e. test pilots expanding human knowledge and testing the limits of human endurance."
Stationery stores and postal workers push envelopes; test pilots push the outside of the envelope. In their relentless desire to abbreviate and seem cool, Americans have destroyed the meaning of another expression.
However I couldn’t find a direct connection as it's been present in a straight search, except for the opportunity of a dissertation helping to put the 70’s decade into perspective, and did mention (pg 80+) Fred Silverman’s (qualifications and insight) which is why he became so memorable as a network executive.
The point of the “read” itself has to do with TV Critics in that decade the main point offered is that the 70’s decade was a transition in TV history between the idealism of the 60’s and the neoliberalism of the 80’s. It's interesting in terms of MeTV focusing more on the 50th anniversary of the 70’s programing, knowing a little background about how it fits into our appreciation of Classic TV (decade by decade). The highlights are bullet-points below:
• The 70’s foreshadowed end of classic network television
• New rivals entered the scene: PBS, Independent stations and cable TV
• First time ABC overshadowed CBS in 20 years, a timeshift in viewer taste!
• Rise of the relevant sitcom (and failure) because viewers weren’t overly interested
• Peak of Hollywood’s film craze (remember scheduling primetime for watching popular and blockbuster movies?)
• Beginning of original (docudramas and semi-historical) TV miniseries
• The last stand of the 3 broadcast networks meant the
gradual erosion of their domination raised question about how the TV industry operated
• Introduction of cable & satellite technologies
• Advancement of distribution (syndication) strategies
• Development of subscription network business model
• Interest in home video recording, games, two-way cable
• Government regulation shifted to deregulation (opportunities)
• The 70’s transitioned between the idealism of the 1960’s and rise of neoliberal in the 1980’s
• The thesis focuses on case studies (Happy Days, Waltons, and a Miniseries) also the MTM Show
Title: The Critical Eye – Reviewing 1970’s Television
Page 80+ – features insight into Fred Silverman
"Silverman did not hold his tongue, responding, "Yeah, well, as I recall, Dick, the last show you brought me was about a talking monkey" humorous.
Christopher Walken uses the term "talking monkey" frequently in "The Prophecy".