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Television Production in Hollywood, 1946-1950

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The major studios clearly saw promise in television during the 1940s, but they were not blinded by ambition; they proceeded cautiously by the end of the decade because they were reluctant to take any action that would leave them subservient to the existing radio networks. Yet even though the major studios withdrew from television, Hollywood’s engagement with the medium continued apace, fueled by independent producers who rushed forward to supply the new medium’s demand for programming.

As small-scale entrepreneurs, Hollywood’s first television producers experienced few of the reservations that deterred the movie industry’s major powers. They had grown accustomed to squeezing themselves into the cracks and crevices of the studio system—operating on tiny budgets, surviving on minimal profits, designing products that earned money in the neglected areas of a market defined by larger companies. Independent producers and small studios, like Monogram and Republic, typically filled the exhibitors’ need for such products as B features, short subjects, serials, and travelogues, the less prestigious and profitable entertainment that completed a theater’s daily program, but that the major companies produced with less frequency after the early 1940s. Adaptability was the key to survival in a market that discriminated against any small producer. By necessity, then, independent producers worked with a much broader definition of filmed entertainment, considering many formats that strayed from the major studios’ dominant feature-length narratives. Unburdened by commitment to any particular system of distribution or exhibition, to a certain conception of the producer’s autonomy and authority, or to any particular definition of the cinematic text, these producers were less devoted to a single medium than to exploiting the potential of any market and any product that promised a return on their investment.

The television industry during the late 1940s and early 1950s was not an ideal alternative to the studio system, since the networks were beginning to monopolize the nation’s TV stations as effectively as the studios had controlled theaters. By comparison, however, the market for TV programming was relatively open. Though the majority of network programs were produced for live broadcast by such New York-based advertising agencies as J. Walter Thompson and Young and Rubicam, Hollywood producers discovered a welcome market; the successful ones, like William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd or Hal Roach, were able to license filmed programming to networks and local stations or to national, regional, and local sponsors who would then purchase broadcast time. Early television offered meager financial rewards, but it opened new channels of distribution outside the influence of the major studios, providing refuge to producers whose movies traditionally had languished in tiny neighborhood or rural theaters.

An entrepreneur like Jerry Fairbanks epitomized the spirit of the early telefilm pioneers. A producer of short subjects at Paramount for many years, Fairbanks chased the lure of television riches in 1946 when he opened his own telefilm production company in a small studio at the heart of Sunset Boulevard’s Poverty Row studios. Inspired by the general corporate culture at Paramount, the studio most committed to television, and by the ingenuity of the studio’s short-subject division, Fairbanks envisioned TV production as his opportunity to surpass the studio system. Although there were only a dozen TV stations broadcasting at the time, Fairbanks believed the most optimistic forecasts that more than a thousand stations would bombard the nation’s airwaves by 1953. While many of these thousand stations would be network affiliates broadcasting live programs from New York, Fairbanks and others speculated that they would have an insatiable Page 437  appetite for filmed programming because they would quickly exhaust the network’s ability to supply new programs. Although TV production did not promise to be immediately profitable, Fairbanks imagined this imminent demand and saw no ceiling on the potential value of filmed TV programs, which could be circulated indefinitely among the country’s new TV stations.

Fairbanks was a tinkerer and a cut-rate visionary; he relished the challenge of adapting studio system production techniques to the demanding economies of television during an era when a half-hour television program, like his 1948 series Public Prosecutor, could not count on more than a $20,000 budget. During the late 1940s, in the trade journals and popular press, Fairbanks touted his “Multicam” production system, which adapted live TV’s three-camera shooting technique for film production. While there were precedents for multi-camera shooting in the film industry, Fairbanks used 16mm Mitchell cameras mounted on tripod dollies to approximate video’s capacity for quick, continuous shooting while creating a product—a motion picture print—that was durable, reproducible, and transportable; moreover, its visual quality surpassed that of live TV’s kinescopes, which were filmed off the screen of TV monitors airing the live production.

Because of his limited budget, Fairbanks could not afford to duplicate video’s practice of running all three cameras simultaneously. To economize on film stock, much of the editing was completed “in-camera,” with only one designated camera running at any given moment. This technique necessitated rigorous preproduction planning in which lighting, camera angles, editing decisions, and the movement of cameras and performers had to be orchestrated precisely before the cameras rolled. Cables and banks of 300-watt reflector lights were suspended from the ceiling so that they would not impede the movement of actors or cameras. Newly developed zoom lenses were fitted onto the cameras to facilitate rapid shifts in focus or changes in composition. Fairbanks registered a number of patents related to this process, including the tripod dollies, an electronic method for marking synchronization among all three cameras and the sound recorder, and a device for following focus on the Mitchell camera’s parallax viewer. At a time when other filmed half-hour episodes had production schedules of two or three days, Fairbanks could shoot an episode in a matter of hours. Production costs were kept so low that the single most expensive item in the budget was the film stock and processing, which accounted for only 3 percent of a feature film budget but was 25 to 30 percent of the budget for any Fairbanks program.

In 1948, NBC contracted Fairbanks to produce the first filmed series for network TV, Public Prosecutor, starring John Howard. The program looks primitive by the standards of contemporary feature film production. Narrated by Howard, who addresses the camera throughout much of the story, the bare-bones mystery plots are condensed to fit into fifteen-minute segments modeled after the format of radio episodes. The verbal exposition is so insistent that the images begin to seem redundant; the episodes truly resemble radio with pictures. Sets are often undecorated. Actors appear distracted, if not anguished, as they try to hit their marks consistently in the first take. In spite of the opportunities for shot selection offered by the Multicam system, the camera work consists mainly of single-take medium shots or simple over-the-shoulder dialogue sequences. In promoting his Multicam system, Fairbanks claimed that his minimum length per take was five minutes, with the average take lasting between seven and eight minutes. Although this may be true of other Fairbanks programs, an episode of Public Prosecutor contains frequent, seemingly unnecessary editing within any given sequence. The network-financed budget for the series was $8,800 per episode. Still, the network could not find sponsors—even after reducing the asking price to $5,000 per episode. With each episode’s production costs exceeding $10,000, Fairbanks discontinued production before completing a seasons worth of episodes. 56 Fairbanks’s company survived the setback, going on to produce series such as Silver Theater (1950) and Front Page Detective (1951-1953), but it certainly was not an impressive debut for filmed programming on the networks.

Many other independent producers joined Fairbanks in this first speculative period of telefilm production, which extended from 1946 through the 1951-1952 TV season. “Everybody who could buy or borrow a little drugstore movie camera announced him-self as a TV-film producer,” Fairbanks claimed in describing these early days. 57 News accounts during this period estimated that over eight hundred producers sought telefilm riches in the years prior to 1952. As a result, over two thousand unsold pilots languished on storage shelves or rotted in trash bins, having failed to attract a sponsor for network broadcast or syndication. Neglected studios, empty warehouses, supermarkets, and family garages were transformed into temporary soundstages; 16mm cameras disappeared from stores; personal savings accounts were drained—all in the frantic gold rush years of the early telefilm industry.

The most visible producers to emerge in telefilm production during the late 1940s were the B-movie cowboys, who quickly became icons of the early video age: William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers. Boyd provided the telefilm industry’s first unabashed success story, fueling every independent producer’s wildest fantasies about deliverance from the studio system. During the 1940s, he had shrewdly invested $350,000 to acquire the television rights to the series of Hopalong Cassidy feature films in which he had starred since 1935; in addition, he acquired the rights to use the Hopalong Cassidy character in other media, including television, and in character merchandising. After marketing the features to local stations during the late 1940s, Boyd produced a Hopalong Cassidy TV series for NBC beginning in 1949.

By tapping into the growing postwar youth market and by taking advantage of television’s emergent position at the center of an expanding popular culture marketplace, Boyd founded a Hopalong Cassidy industry that within only a few years included a radio series, a comic strip, comic books, a popular fan club, and a dazzling array of licensed merchandise—with an estimated total value of $200 million. 58 Spurred by Boyd’s canny reincarnation, Autry and Rogers also revived moribund careers and earned fantastic wealth, beginning in the late 1940s, by producing television Westerns on the same dusty backlots that once had provided the settings for their B Westerns.

From the pack of fly-by-night producers that surrounded these cowboy heroes in the early telefilm business, five significant production companies emerged: Fairbanks, the Hal Roach Studios, Bing Crosby Enterprises, Ziv Television Programs, Inc., and Louis Snader Productions. The varied backgrounds of these producers give some sense of the many career routes that delivered early entrepreneurs to the telefilm industry.

The Hal Roach Studios arrived in television as an established Poverty Row movie studio. After years at the margins of the movie industry, the Roach studio was familiar with the many low-budget alternatives to standard narrative features. The studio itself was virtually dormant in 1949 when Hal Roach Jr., after years of kicking around the industry, joined the company and convinced his father to rent space to telefilm producers and to form their own TV production unit. Roach produced situation comedies such as The Stu Erwin Show (1950-1955) and My Little Margie (1952-1955), and crime dramas like Racket Squad (1950-1953). As the studio increased its output, Hal Jr. became one of the early influential figures in the telefilm business, helping to found both the Television Film Producers’ Association and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Bing Crosby was a performer and shrewd businessman, who always had moved easily between movies, radio, recordings, and live performances. Under the guidance of Basil Grillo and Crosby’s brother Everett, Bing Crosby Enterprises during the 1940s had diversified into a number of unrelated businesses, producing orange juice, ice cream, sport shirts, and a wide variety of endorsed merchandise. An early proponent of the shift from live radio broadcast to transcribed performances, Crosby also was a chief investor in Ampex’s development of videotape. As a result of these investments, Crosby was probably the most reputable and highly capitalized of the early telefilm producers. Crosbys company during its early years focused primarily on anthology series like Fireside Theater (1950-1958) and Rebound (1952).

Frederick Ziv, a syndicator of radio transcriptions to local stations, viewed telefilm production as an obvious extension of his existing business—an alternative to live broadcasting that provided local radio stations with some autonomy from the networks. Ziv Television Programs, Inc., packaged fifteen-minute sports and news programs for TV beginning in 1948. In 1949, his company began production on The Cisco Kid (1950-1956), its first dramatic TV series. By shooting the series in color when all other producers were using black-and-white film, Ziv ensured the residual value of the series for decades. Ziv’s subsequent work consisted primarily of action series with male heroes, such as Boston Blackie (1951-1953) and Dangerous Assignment (1951-1952).

Louis Snader, an ex-musician and real estate tycoon, was probably the least likely member of this group, and his success was the shortest-lived. Louis Snader Productions produced the television version of Dick Tracy in 1950, but Snader hoped to make his real mark through his introduction in 1949 of “Telescriptions,” three-minute filmed musical performances featuring stars like Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, and the Jordanaires. Producing twelve per day at a cost of $2,500 each, Snader imagined that his short films could be programmed flexibly into the daily schedule of local stations. Snader anticipated that Telescriptions would be hosted by TV jockeys who would become as influential as radios newly celebrated disk jockeys. 60 Snader’s peculiar contribution to the early telefilm—imagining TV mimicking radios new recorded-music format and unwittingly anticipating the form of music videos—gives some idea of the flexibility of these producers, of their willingness to explore the options made possible by TV.

Only two of Hollywood’s major studios attempted to move into television production during the late 1940s, and these were two of the least profitable studios in the studio system: Universal-International and Columbia. At first glance, it seems ironic that Universal and Columbia were the first studio system pioneers in TV production since they traditionally had demonstrated the least interest in broadcasting. But in fact Universal and Columbia were best equipped to adapt to the programming demands and economic relations of television. While the five largest studios jockeyed for position—buying radio stations, investing in television research, applying for TV station licenses—Universal and Columbia never had the investment capital to diversify into broadcasting. Along with United Artists, Universal and Columbia did not own the revenue-generating theater chains that provided the major studios with the financial security to consider diversification. Universal and Columbia saw their relationship to the TV industry as an extension of their subordinate status in the studio system: they were prepared to supply product to a market beyond their control.

Universal first began television production in 1947 as one measure in a desperate attempt to put the brakes on runaway financial losses that had piled up following the box-office failure of a number of prestige independent productions financed and distributed by the studio starting in 1946. 61 Universal turned to the production of TV commercials as a side venture of its New York-based subsidiary United World Films, the worlds largest distributor of 8mm and 16mm film. The company immediately established itself by producing for clients such as Levers Lux Soap, General Electric, and Gulf Oil. By 1949, the company had moved its TV operations to Los Angeles in hopes of expanding into the production of documentaries and other types of programming. Since the TV division’s net profits for the first year were less than $40,000, the studio probably did not intend for TV production to boost its profits so much as to buy time by paying for facilities and labor at a time when lack of funds even forced the studio temporarily to shut its doors. 62 Universal staked its eventual movie comeback on a series of low-budget, proto-situation comedies featuring Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule, but it never sold a television series and consequently remained in TV solely as a producer of commercials.

Although Columbia initially entered television under much the same circumstances as Universal, its rapid diversification beyond commercials made it more successful. In the spring of 1949, Columbia’s president, Harry Cohn, hired his nephew Ralph, the son of the studio cofounder Jack Cohn, to conduct a preliminary study of Columbia’s immediate and long-range prospects in the field of television. For the previous two years, Ralph Cohn had acquired a firsthand knowledge of television while running a two-man organization, Pioneer Television, which produced TV commercials in New York. Cohn presented a fifty-page analysis in which he advised that Columbia immediately assemble an organization to produce TV commercials and, ultimately, filmed programs for both network and local broadcast.

In June 1949, Columbia formed a television production subsidiary through Screen Gems, the former animation company that had produced the studio’s short subjects since the Cohns purchased it from Charles Mintz in 1934. During its first two years, Screen Gems produced only commercials, delivering more than two hundred for such clients as American Tobacco, Hamilton Watch, and BVD. 64 Soon thereafter, Screen Gems began producing television series, and within a few years its success with series like Father Knows Best (1954-1960) would elevate it into the ranks of Hollywood’s major powers.

Created under severe economic constraints, Hollywood’s earliest filmed television programs scarcely affected the movie industry’s major studios. During the first stage of television production in Hollywood, roughly 1946 until 1951, telefilm production took place on the distant fringes of the studio system. The province of Hollywood outsiders and castoffs, telefilm’s underfinanced, uncoordinated early ventures merited little attention from industry leaders. Gradually, however, the market for telefilm production solidified as sponsors and the networks looked to Hollywood for programming and as more established independent producers turned to television in hopes of reaping profits through syndication and merchandising. As early as 1951, these producers began to leave their mark on the medium. During the fall of that year, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball premiered I Love Lucy (1951-1957), the first filmed situation comedy to have a national impact. Jack Webb followed later that season with Dragnet (1952-1959), the first successful crime series shot on film. Within a year, I Love Lucy and Dragnet, two filmed series produced in Hollywood, stood atop the network ratings as the most popular series on TV.

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