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Television was widely anticipated for a half-century before it finally appeared in the home. You see it as futuristic science fiction in films like Metropolis, Things to Come, Transatlantic Tunnel, and Modern Times. Someday it would provide to every American a front-row seat at public events, like the inauguration of a president, a horse race, or the World Series. There’d be live remote broadcasts from big city theaters, with dramas, operas, and vaudeville, as in International House, complete with pretty singers, leggy dancers, and black comedians. All of that would eventually come to pass, in one form or another. Live news events, sports, and variety are mainstays of television even today. But when we say the words “Last night I watched a TV show,” what we usually have in mind is different.
There was a blank spot in science fiction writers’ imaginations: scripted entertainment. One simple, obvious thing these tele-viewers of tomorrow never seemed to do in these futuristic visions was spend any couch time watching TV, at least in the sense that we know the term. The futurists of the 1920s didn’t anticipate that very soon we’d have a national habit of hanging out each week with the likes of the Ricardos and the Kramdens. Flash Gordon never kicked back with a cold brew to catch an episode of The Adventures of Superman. Inventing television was hard enough; inventing the kinds of programs and formats that people would want to see, week after week, took another kind of talent. In retrospect, it all happened quickly, but it didn’t happen overnight.
TV shows differ in all sorts of ways, but almost anywhere in the world even children recognize the basics (*): a fictional program, either dramatic or comic, that mostly features the same group of characters in every episode. It has catchy theme music, opening titles, and a closing list of people who worked on the show. It’s always aired at the same time of day, every week if it’s new, every weekday if it’s old. That time slot is either 30 or 60 minutes long, no more and no less.
Live television owes much to theater. But plays don’t have strict running times. You don’t go to a theater every week to see a continuation of last week’s play. Filmed television owes a lot to movies, with their camera angles, lighting, musical soundtracks, and editing. But neither theater plays nor movies are interrupted every ten minutes for announcements hawking the sale of cars or weight-loss pills. Television learned it from radio broadcasting, which invented time slots, commercials, and a continuing cast of actors. We’re all so familiar with the format that we’ve long since forgotten how artificial it is.
(* Naturally, there are always creative exceptions. There are anthology shows with different actors each week, like Kraft Suspense Theater or The Twilight Zone. There are entertainment offshoots like game shows, and oddball premises like Sing Along with Mitch, Candid Camera, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living. But I’m talking plain ol’ regular TV shows: Kojak and Sgt. Bilko, Father Knows Best, and The Shield.)
Hollywood had experience in visual storytelling, technicians, and equipment ready to go on location, warehouses full of bought-and-paid-for scripts, and access to big-name talent, if only they would play ball with the networks. But they wouldn’t, not at first. Big studios not only refused to produce new material for TV, they initially refused to sell broadcast rights to their film libraries. That’s why the schedules of local stations in my childhood were loaded with fourth-rate films from third-rate studios: because the majors wouldn’t do it.
Stepping eagerly into the gap, many smaller independent companies were formed to make film series for television, the ones the big boys wouldn’t do. Some of the most famous companies were owned by film actors, like Desilu (Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball), Mark VII Productions (Jack Webb), and Four Star (David Niven, Charles Boyer, Dick Powell, and Ida Lupino).
In 1948, one of these new start-up companies, Imppro, (Independent Motion Picture Productions), signed a contract with CBS to produce 12 episodes of a detective show, The Cases of Eddie Drake, to be filmed on the west coast at a cost of $7,500 per half-hour episode, mere peanuts even by 1948 standards. By the end of the year, eight episodes were in the can, and then a mysterious interlude began. The show would have been one of the first, Hollywood-made film shows on the air, but it didn’t get there until DuMont, the runt of the network litter, bought it in 1952. Four years was an eon in early TV time. Like a fly in amber, it was by then a well-preserved fossil of a little-seen past. By ’52, there were plenty of filmed shows, and they’d started to develop a certain style.
But in ’48, they hadn’t, not quite yet. Eddie Drake doesn’t have an eye-catching animated opening with easy-to-remember theme music. It opens like a low-low-budget Hollywood feature of the late Thirties, with a stationary title card. Like a radio show, it has a framing device; each episode is supposedly a story being told by a hard-boiled detective to a psychiatrist writing a book about criminal behavior. Okay, all right, I’ll say it: “a beautiful lady psychiatrist.” Her main acting job is raising her eyebrows at descriptions of other women.
The most prolific of the non-studio TV show factories was Ziv Productions, owned by a colorful, swashbuckling independent named Frederick Ziv. If you are film savvy, you’ve probably heard of Roger Corman. He was a moneymaking producer of cheap action and horror films, but often with a sense of class, a touch of style. Fred Ziv can fairly be called the Roger Corman of early television, before the big studios changed their minds about producing TV shows.
From 1950 through 1956, he produced The Cisco Kid, one of TV’s earliest westerns, and one of the first television series anywhere in the world to be filmed in color. This was expensive, by penny-pinching Ziv standards, and the introduction of color TV was delayed for years longer than expected. But once it did arrive, in the mid-Fifties, The Cisco Kid was one of the few color programs that small local stations could afford, so it finally paid off for Ziv.
One of Ziv Productions’ biggest-ever hits, I Led 3 Lives (1953-’57), was never on prime-time network TV, but it attracted high ratings for local stations all over the country. Only five years after the primitive-looking beginnings of The Cases of Eddie Drake, I Led 3 Lives is a great example of how much and how quickly TV producers had learned about making shows that kept viewers in seats.
Each episode begins with a dramatic musical and visual flourish as the show’s stark logotype swoops onto the cover of the book the show is based on, the memoirs of Herbert Philbrick, who infiltrated the Communist party for the FBI. The narrator intones the show’s premise, reminding the audience of the basics, and says a few words about tonight’s story.
Most episodes involve the hero foiling an act of Moscow-commanded, US Communist party sabotage or espionage. There are no gadgets, no stunt work, no gunplay, just a Dragnet-style procedural about the often-dull daily work of microfilming documents, updating cipher codes, and attending Party meetings. Ziv made a virtue of necessity, using real locations long before that was fashionable. He was too cheap to build sets.
The show was crafted to build tension and suspense before every break for a commercial. When the show came back from commercials, it featured a “bumper”—a short segment of film with that distinctive I Led 3 Lives logo again, to remind you where you were and get you back in its mood. ‘Bumpers” were a small, clever idea that stuck.
At the end of the show, the actor playing Herbert Philbrick said a few words about next week’s episode and then wished us good night. Note that at that time, there was no awareness that this show might be seen any other way than once a week, in the evening. Then the dramatic musical theme plays over the closing credit roll.
Now that’s what a TV show looks like. By then, other early shows like Susie, Topper, My Little Margie, and The Millionaire were mastering the skill of “speaking in television.” Later in the Fifties, the studios caved in, and were soon competing with each other’s new television production divisions. Hollywood films stopped routinely ridiculing their small-screen cousins, as in 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? This was roughly the point at which most American intellectuals decided that they despised TV. There would be exceptions; William Faulkner’s favorite show was Car 54, Where Are You?
The contents of TV writing have shifted with the culture, but the habits and conventions of TV shows have proven to be remarkably durable over the decades. Minor adjustments do get made, like minimizing the changeover point between shows so viewers won’t be tempted to change the channel. For a long time now, the unions and guilds have okayed speeded-up end credits of an outgoing show to be displayed at unreadable size in a small box within the big picture of the incoming show. Plus, the next show begins immediately, delaying its opening credits by a minute.
Today’s streaming era cuts TV loose from narrow selections constrained by broadcast or cable bandwidth, and from being anchored in specific show times. Yet despite new technology, like small high-quality cameras that can go anywhere, few attempts to alter the boundaries of what a TV show is have succeeded.
Fact is, whether we’ve ever thought about it or not, our unstated preferences make it clear that most of us don’t really want our TV shows to be too much like the real world.
We expect modern cop shows to be “dark,” “edgy,” “gritty,” exploring depths of evil. So CSI, set in one of the world’s sunniest major cities, often does its work in the stygian darkness of derelict buildings, basements, lethal meat lockers, and other places of nightmarish shadows, requiring intensely bright little flashlights.
And on the other hand, we expect comedy shows to subconsciously clue us into the fun with shiny, uniform brightness. Some of this is for technical reasons: for example, the bars even in the shows of our esteemed R> brother Rob Long, like Cheers and Sullivan and Son, can never be too real; after all, real bars adjust their 24/7 room lighting according to the “Nobody’s ugly at two a.m.” principle. Dimly lit barflies trying to hide their wedding rings just doesn’t signal “romcom” like a brightly lit, eminently presentable Sam and Diane do. Plus, there’s the issue of sound. Real bars have blaring jukeboxes and are crowded with loud people, often cheering a game on TV. Having to shout over the noise isn’t the best environment for precision joke-telling.
Audiences prefer TV shows with situations and characters that ring true to life, sure, but ones that are in an artificially heightened comedy or action bubble that seldom encounters the real world. All over the world, (and in our part of the world, for three-quarters of a century), we want shows to be original and familiar, novel and predictable. Most of the time, we’re more or less satisfied with what we see, so we snap on the TV and keep watching.Published in