On Monday, March 30th, 1981 at roughly 2:30PM Eastern, John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., wounding the President and several others. As news of the shooting spread the TV networks–ABC, CBS and NBC–interrupted their regularly scheduled programming for live coverage that continued into the evening.
ABC scrapped its planned broadcast of the Academy Awards. NBC went through with its airing of an NCAA basketball game. CBS aired a special hour-long special on the shooting from 8-9:00PM and then began its normal schedule. However, instead of the episode of M*A*S*H that was supposed to air from 9-9:30PM, CBS showed a repeat due to concerns about content.
The episode that had been scheduled to air March 30th was “The Life You Save,” in which Charles is shot at by a sniper and becomes tormented with the idea of death. Here’s the description from The Los Angeles Times:
“Maj. Winchester becomes more introspective and reclusive after a sniper attack on the camp.”
For obvious reasons, CBS didn’t think the viewing public would want to watch such an episode hours after their president was shot at. Instead, the networked aired a repeat of “Cementing Relationships.” It ranked 6th for the week with a 27.2 Nielsen rating.
When “The Life You Save” was finally shown weeks later on Monday, May 4th it averaged a 23.2 Nielsen rating and ranked 2nd for the week.
M*A*S*H wasn’t the only program affected by the attempted assassination. NBC pulled its scheduled broadcast of Tomorrow Coast-to-Coast because it involved gang influence on President Reagan’s cabinet. The episode prepared as backup couldn’t be shown either because it was about President Kennedy’s assassination. ABC yanked a planned episode of Mork & Mindy over content as well.
Finally, ABC executives asked Stephen J. Cannell to change the name of the main character in The Greatest American Hero. It was Ralph Hinkley.
Jory, Tom. “Pre-emptions for Assassination Coverage Cost Networks Millions.” Associated Press. 31 Mar. 1981: AM Cycle.
Margulies, Lee. “Inside TV: Barney Miller to Return After All.” Los Angeles Times. 2 Apr. 1981: I9.
“‘Masada’ Helps ABC to First-Place Finish in Ratings Race.” Associated Press. 8 Apr. 1981: PM Cycle.
“NBC Has Top-Rated Show, BUt CBS and ABC Win Race.” Associated Press. 13 May 1981: PM Cycle.
No Title. Los Angeles Times. 29 Mar. 1981: 14.
Revised October 16th, 2016