"Live Cats" Versus "Dead Cats"
While nobility found little reward in TV, efficiency did. This was particularly so once a network surrendered to the most cost-effective vehicle possible: the filmed program. In the tradition of network radio which eschewed recorded shows, early TV programs were usually broadcast live. But live shows were expensive and inefficient. Variety programs such as
The Texaco Star Theater and The Colgate Comedy Hour were headlined by highly paid performers, plus an array of guest stars, musicians, dancers, and production personnel who substantially added to costs—and the programs were designed to air only one time. Similarly, plays seen weekly on the great showcases of the Golden Age were costly undertakings intended to appear once. In all such cases, there were no reruns and no syndication deals.
Although national television was primarily a medium for live entertainment, it had always been open to filmed series. Early network Westerns such as
The Lone Ranger and syndicated offerings such as The Cisco Kid demonstrated the mass acceptability of filmed programs from the outset. Because of its merger with United Paramount Theaters, ABC had a strategic relationship with men who understood film better than most broadcasters did. Once the FCC approved the merger in early 1953, ABC became the leading network televising filmed programming. Under the leadership of Leonard H. Goldenson—with a cadre of eager devotees who included President Robert Kintner of the network and Vice-Presidents Oliver Treyz and James T. Aubrey—ABC turned first to the Walt Disney studio which debuted its Disneyland series in 1954. The following year the network invited Warner Brothers to enter TV with Warner Brothers Presents, and eventually
Cheyenne, Maverick, Sugarfoot, Hawaiian Eye, 77 Sunset Strip, and Bourbon Street Beat, among others. As Richard Bunce has pointed out, ABC fortunes soared—gross billings leaping 68 percent between 1954 and 1955—once its commitment to film was anchored in arrangements with Disney and Warners.
Film was not new to ABC. By 1953 almost 48 percent of its weekly schedule was on film. At CBS the figure was little more than 13 percent, and at NBC it was 18 percent. Only at the DuMont network was programming 100 percent live. Seven years later, however, DuMont was long out of business, filmed shows filled 83 percent of all network prime time, and
Variety predicted that the 1960-61 season would "go down in the books as the year the networks wrote off live television as a force in weekly primetime programming."
Important to the transition to film was the migration of ABC executives to the other networks. In 1957 Kintner came to NBC-TV, where the following year he became president of the network. Aubrey, who had left CBS to become vice-president for programming at ABC, returned in 1960 as president of CBS-TV. In both cases the officials came as disciples of schedules relying heavily on film. By late 1960, with Treyz now president of ABC-TV, the three networks were headed by protégés of Leonard Goldenson.
The ascendency of filmed shows constituted the triumph of industry economics over television aesthetics. This result was ensured when major Hollywood studios in the mid-1950s abandoned their initial reluctance to produce for the new medium. Whereas subsidiaries of the smaller studios such as Screen Gems (Columbia), Interstate Television (Allied Artists), General Teleradio (RKO), Revue Studios (MCA), United World Films (Universal), and Hollywood Television Services (Republic) had supplied filmed series since the early 1950s, the ascendency of film was not finalized until mid-decade when, as well as Disney and Warner Brothers, prestigious film giants such as 20th Century-Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and United Artists (through its purchase of the successful independent TV producer Ziv) began producing video series. As film historian Thomas Schatz has illustrated, this was no casual decision by the major Hollywood studios, since revenues from these TV series soon were used to stabilize their operations and offset the rising costs of making feature films."
When these were added to those sizable independent companies already filming for television—in particular, Desilu and Four Star—the fate of live TV was sealed. Sealed, too, was the destiny of hundreds of small production houses such as Guild Films that had supplied early TV. Whereas there were 331 such companies listed in the 1956 edition of
Television Factbook, that figure was halved in three years.
While the networks were becoming more efficiently organized to program and advertise to the nation, the movement to film catalyzed the centralization of TV production. Large companies either bought or drove out of business most of the small operations. By late 1963 one of the biggest winners, MCA, was employing 5,300 actors and technicians for its Revue Productions, while two-thirds of the earnings of members of the Screen Actors Guild came from work in television films. At that time
Fortune magazine estimated that MCA had a financial interest in "no less than 45 percent of all TV evening hours."
Still, in phrases coined by producer Martin Manulis, there were those "live cats" who favored live television production and opposed the movement of the "dead cats" toward greater utilization of movies. As a "live cat," The eminent producer David Sarnoff was an early critic of the trend to motion pictures, asserting in 1956 that "the true function of TV will have failed if the film programming snowballs [so] as to become the dominant appeal...." The following year Susskind predicted that "audiences will demand a return to live because they will be overwhelmed by the mediocrity of film this season." For him the problem was in the contrast between the "dynamic, creative programming" produced live in New York City and the "trite and cheap imitations" filmed in Hollywood, where the major concern was "how to make a fast buck."
For producer Martin Stone the case for live television involved aesthetic matters such as immediacy, the nature of communication, and transporting of the viewer. He contended, "Film in abundance on television is the equivalent of the home movie in continuous performance. Live television is magic of its own."
Filmed programs, however, were too profitable to resist. Produced quickly and inexpensively, such series could continue to make money in syndication long after they premiered. Individual episodes of a series could be rerun to supplement the 39-week regular schedule. The life cycle of a filmed show depended only on its popularity.
Moreover, when a popular network series ended, it could be edited down to allow for more commercial minutes, then rented for non-network use. Here it could continue to attract viewers and advertisers indefinitely. Such a series might also reappear on network stations but outside prime-time hours, or in a few instances, such as with
I Love Lucy during 1955-1956 and Gunsmoke during 1961-1964, reruns could be offered as a network series on one evening while new episodes aired on another night.
Further, filmed programs could be leased to television in foreign countries. Action-adventure and Western series that were long on action and short on dialogue and complexity were particularly easy to prepare for export. With vocal dubbing or subtitles, these programs could become entertainment staples in many countries now entering the television age. "Talk about jumping from camel to jet plane," remarked an official of the United States Information Agency who was excited in 1956 about the Cold War advantages that would accrue from the penetration of foreign cultures through American TV, "this is jumping from papyrus scroll to television."
What had occurred in American TV by the early 1960s was little more than the conquest of a new medium by an old medium. During the 39 weeks of the 1958-1959 season the networks broadcast enough filmed programs in prime time to make 936 feature movies. By this date, Desilu, Revue, and Screen Gems grossed an estimated $100 million by selling programs to television. And by the fall of 1959 Warner Brothers was filming seven series for ABC, which constituted 30 percent of the network's evening schedule.
As well as creating filmed series for TV, the movie studios also began to lease their vintage motion pictures to network and local stations. Slowly at first came lesser movies: in the late 1940s and early 1950s B Westerns from PRC, Monogram, Grand National, and similar studios were prevalent; also available were British films from the likes of J. Arthur Rank. There were low-budget movie series featuring the
Eastside Kids (The Bowery Boys) from Monogram and Sherlock Holmes from Universal, plus packages of several hundred cartoons from Warner Brothers, Universal, and Columbia.
The marriage of film to television was consummated in 1955. With the traditional studio system of integrated production, distribution, and exhibition in collapse for various reasons, and with rising costs in all facets of moviemaking, the lure of video proved irresistible. That year RKO released 740 feature films to TV, while Columbia released 104, J. Arthur Rank 165, Paramount 35, Selznick 11, and Universal-International 8—plus 192 Westerns from Columbia and Universal and 123 Gene Autry and Roy Rogers cowboy films from Republic.
In the area of short subjects, the figures, too, were impressive: Paramount released 1,600 shorts, RKO 1,000, 20th Century-Fox 600, and Paul Terry's animated
Terrytoons nearly 1,100. This development led one commentator to suggest that "apart from an actual wholesale release to video of all the properties in all the vaults of all the majors, there isn't very much more that the studios could do to make themselves more strongly felt in the video field." By 1961 there were 12,209 feature films available to television; 2,651 made after 1948, and only 10 percent of them were Westerns.
With the embrace of TV by movie companies came the triumph of Hollywood over all other video production centers. In the early years of television New York City was the premier site for origination; here the spirit of Broadway was notable in the great live comedy-variety and dramatic fare on network TV. Chicago also contributed to the live network schedule with series such as
Kukla, Fran, and Ollie; Dave Garroway's variety offering Garroway at Large; and a one-hour weekly circus,
Super Circus. But with reliance on motion pictures, the networks turned to the reservoir of movie talent situated in Southern California.
Through motion pictures and network radio, Hollywood already possessed a production stranglehold on U.S. popular culture. It seems inconceivable that TV would have withstood the lure of California any longer than necessary. By the mid-1950s the networks originated from lavish new West Coast production facilities, and in the fall of 1957 more than 71 percent of all network prime-time offerings came from Hollywood, and a substantial number of live network shows were also broadcast from Southern California. Coincidental with the move, network live programming dwindled from 80 percent in 1953 to 33 percent by 1960.
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