The big reason why “M*A*S*H” has never been beaten is simply because there are a lot more ways to watch TV now, and a lot more shows to pick from. In 1980, television was still dominated by ABC, CBS, and NBC, with shows being written mainly with the aim of having universal appeal. Viewers’ options expanded significantly with the growing number of cable services, as well as the increase in shows dedicated to reaching specific demographics. Things then spiraled out of control with the advent of streaming: In 2022 there aired nearly 600 scripted shows, far bigger than the 200 shows aired in 2009, which itself was far bigger than the number airing back in 1983.
This has led to a TV landscape where, outside of rare hits like “Game of Thrones” and “Stranger Things,” most shows don’t have the sort of broad appeal “M*A*S*H” got to have. “Yellowstone” gets over 10 million views an episode these days, for instance, but it doesn’t feel like a big show to anyone outside the series’ older, more conservative, less online audience. “Saturday Night Live” made a whole sketch about this phenomenon earlier this year, referencing the fact that nobody seemed to know about “Ginny & Georgia” despite it being the number one new show on Netflix that month.
Every show today seems to have its own little niche, appealing to a few specific demographics — or taste clusters, if you will — because appealing to everyone no longer seems possible. Unless the television landscape drastically changes, it doesn’t seem like “M*A*S*H” will be dethroned as the most-viewed episode of a scripted program any time soon.