There Must Only Be One! ATTACK!

When television first began, radio was in full force and had clear guidelines that did not necessarily transfer to television. In radio there were a bunch of independent stations that had there own programs that were uninfluenced by the networks. The independent stations would take their successful television shows and pitch them to the networks as television shows.  At first most   Independent production companies created the pre-recorded series or telefilm, during a time when most tv series were shot live. Desilu was the first company to do telefilm, with the hit show I Love Lucy. At first the networks did not want this model but soon discovered how profitable it could be. Telefilm was created by independents are soon all the networks wanted to use it. The indie companies would produce almost all the shows that were playing in the prime time slots on television.

The networks were interested in partnering with the indie producers because they would be able to produce the series at low costs that would yield a huge profit depending on the show. It was less of a risk because the first shows were based off of already known popular ideas, as was the case with I Love Lucy, which also created the situation comedy. The independent companies created a solid model for the tv series that although was experimental in its birth soon grew largely commercial and static. Later, as Desi Arnaz of Desilu, learned years later when he tried to stray from the model. No network would air his show Fountain of Youth. He essentially created a monster.

What ultimately happened to the independent production companies is exactly what happened to the independent films. Hollywood saw a great opportunity to earn money and power and it took it.  In the late 1950’s after television started to take off, Hollywood decided to stake its claim in television by producing high budget shows that wouldn’t make a profit and were able to soften the blow by the big budget films they profited from. In the end it came down to money. The production companies who were willing to create good show for cheap were upstaged by the high quality big budget films of Hollywood.

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Taste of Independence

During the “laboratory period” of 1948-1952, the TV industry was able to get a taste of what independence really was. The main production that changed what the TV industry is today was Desilu, co-owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, who created “I Love Lucy”. 

   This production company was able to get the freedom for a TV industry to the equivalent of what you would see now in the film industry.  The production company was able to set the bar of how much freedom a company could have. Yet, after this set period the network industries got organized and limited the freedom of many TV productions.

   The thing that really shocked me about how much power and independence Arnaz had in the TV industry back then, was when he asked CBS to “let Desilu have full ownership of [I Love Lucy] after its initial network showing, instead of the original agreement of a fifty-fifty split between CBS and Desilu”,  and of course CBS agreed. Now you don’t really see this now,  even in the film industry. Many productions sometimes ask their directors to change things from the movie and not the other way around. Yet, they had the control when it came to this series. An example of this was when Miramax asked Soderbergh to change his trailer, but in the end Miramax took full control of the advertisement. 

   Another difference between this company and a film production would be the amount of money that goes into the set work. For instance “I Love Lucy” had a set budget of $19,500 per episode, but because CBS wanted the “live-audience” dimension, they agreed to give more money out, pushing the budget to $24,500 per episode. With this it could be seen that financially the series was well. Now compare this to a film production, where the director is given a budget and has to abide to it, unless it can find extra funds outside of its production company. 

      One of the similarities that you can actually see for both Desilu and a film industry now is the freedom that they have to be creative, Arnaz even said it himself. The only reason he wanted to take full control of the series was to be in total control of the way the series would go, creative wise. As for the film producers, well that is the main reason that they decide to create an indie film. 

   For both the film and TV industries it seems as if they switched roles in independence over the past few decades. With TV productions having to loose much of its freedom and independent film industries gaining demand. 

I Love Independence, but not the Costs

Desuli developed network television from changing the way TV shows were produced.  By straying from the live televised shows to a filmed show with a live audience, Arnaz and Ball were able to keep costs low and take ownership from CBS because CBS was not willing to fully finance this risk.  This created a separate sector where independent production companies could create successful shows, mostly based of radio show hits, and do it without the control of TV networks like CBS.

After seeing how successful Desilu had become as an independent production company, networks gained the power of picking and choosing successful hits from these independent production companies that enabled them to gain profits without having to initially invest in a show that was unknown to be a hit or miss.

By relying on independent production companies, networks lost the control of shaping networks through content, it was rather they chose what was successful, not what best created a cohesive prime time line up.  But this is the downfall of the independent production studios.  Based on their successes, they created a refined, narrow subject matter, that limited them from branching out, like how Arnaz wished to do with Fountain in Youth.

With major Hollywood studios coming onto the scene, independent production companies saw their decline.  By increasing costs of production, creating shows with superior production values, independent production companies had to up the ante to compete.  With the upped ante though, the cost risks for production could be financed by bigger Hollywood studios, but the independents couldn’t afford it, which led to their downfall.

 

A Fleeting Glimpse at Independence

Desilu, an independent TV production company created by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, managed to achieve a level of independence from major networks during the 1950’s that might be unrivaled for years to come. But how much independence did they really enjoy from these major networks in the beginning, and how did they lose all of it so quickly?

Desilu first got its clout in the business by starring and producing “I Love Lucy”, which had grown out of a radio show that had starred Lucille Ball. They were able to team up with CBS (who was in charge of finance, production, and “selling” the show) due to Ball’s star power and their low budget costs of $19,500 per episode. This show went on to become the #1 watched show in America in the 1950’s as well as pioneered the sitcom as a legitimate genre. A key note here is that amid all of this success, Desilu managed to keep their creative independence and ownership of the show.

The structural independence of Desilu, however, is questionable at best when compared to endeavors of a similar type within other mediums of entertainment, such as the movie industry. A low budget indie film can be produced, created and distributed completely outside of the major companies, but sadly it seems that the 1950’s TV industry was not so lucky. While Desilu maintained creative independence which helped create the sitcom genre as well as the “telefilm” method, the could not possibly remove themselves from the financial burden of the major players, which ultimately leads to Desilu’s downfall. when majors moved in, production cost began to sky rocket and Desilu could not keep up. This coupled with marital strife that caused Ball and Arnaz to divorce were the deciding factors. 

 

Even if Desilu did not make it in the end, their efforts are still worth commemorating as a true independent. With courage and conviction they pioneered ground breaking changes within the TV industry that will be prevalent for years to come.

 

TV Loves Desilu

There are many ways, according to Schatz, that Desilu functioned independently from the major networks during the 1950s. These ways could be similarly compared to the strategies of independent film institutionally as well.

Luckily, during Desilu’s time, TV was still in an experimental phase- advertising, networks, and talents still worked together, but the ties between them were not as strong as they are today. From the beginning of their I Love Lucy venture, Desilu took much of production creative and institutional control in their own hands; being able to bargain with the networks because of the uncertain state of the developing TV business. This is how they stayed independent from network’s (and incidentally ad agencies’) regulations.

First, Desilu aided in the popularity of the “telefilm” program; a higher production valued show that was filmed first (not just broadcasted live) with new technologies. Arnaz took time to figure out how to “economize on camera setups… [so to] reduce the budget.” So he asked his inventive Hollywood cinematographer friend, Karl Freund, to help out. We still see this today with indie film:  an effort to try to keep a quality feel to a movie (top production values) but within a limited budget, and with cheap help of friends.

After the success of the first season of independently produced I Love Lucy, indie TV held more leeway with networks. New negotiations between producers, advertisers and networks began regarding scheduling and syndication. Desilu made a brilliant move to use I Love Lucy as a lead-in for another one of his sneakily purchased program December Bride, and test-run a different series during the summer. From there, after a number of episodes were aired, and syndication brought in more profits to the indie producers. Unlike indie film, TV has different strategies of distribution- where a film may find success showing a certain festival; shows must utilize airtimes and reruns for profit.

Eventually, as major studios introduced “deficit financing” into the television business, indie companies either had to pay for productions the major’s way, or get taken out altogether. Luckily (again) by this time, Desilu had enough power and money to continue on independently. Arnaz “wanted to experiment with different programming forms”, but when attempting to sell these creations to networks, they declined them. This is the film equivalent of an ‘avant garde’ film vs. a crossover. Both can be independently made, but only the crossover will be distributed to mass audiences. With TV, the audience may is arguably higher than a movie’s, raising the risk in delivering overly “innovative and sophisticated” shows.

Desilu influenced the television in its early years, with its independent innovation and determination. Just like indie film, it had the power to redefine the business’ formulas and production norms, and it did. Today, television may thank Desilu for that!

Desilu’s Unconventional Indie Success

Desilu shares many characteristics with independent films today. The owners had creative freedom, a small budget, limited crew, and innovative goals. Yet, there were still challenges that forced this independent institution to act in more mainstream ways to appease networks and create a successful show. Today, networks would never give up ownership of a show, like CBS once did for ‘I Love Lucy’. Desi Arnaz had some restrictions: he had to film in front of a live audience and shoot episodes in real time. Additionally, independent films today are not simple and formulaic like ‘I Love Lucy’; they aim for obscurity and innovation that threatens their crossover potential.

Similar to independent films today, ‘I Love Lucy’ started out as a radio show that turned into a creative project, designed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Unlike Hollywood productions today, it was a small venture, with only four actors and no big expectations; the show started with two visionaries and one creative goal. The small budget Desilu had to work with is another similarity between this company and today’s independent companies. Arnaz was continually trying to work within the budget of $24,500, which was a bargain in the 50’s. Arnaz demanded full ownership of his show, which led to more creative control and superior production values. This was major for an independent production, one that rarely happens today. Another link to independent film today is the camaraderie between workers in the business. Like Steven Soderbergh is willing to help his filmmaker friends with directing, editing, or any other aspect of production, Cinematographer Karl Freund offered to help Arnaz with camera work because it would reduce the budget and production time at a reduced cost.

Unfortunately, Arnaz lost the full control he fought for. The network required he shoot in front of a live audience, which meant the scenes had to be enacted in real time. In modern production, this would be hard for independent films, which often emphasize complex narrative structure, camera tricks and angles. This along with demands from the ad agency challenged Arnaz to work harder at creating a product that was low budget, but also top quality. Yet, the biggest factor that keeps ‘I Love Lucy’ from contending with the indies of today is the show’s story. It is simple and formulaic. Each episode is essentially the same. Although, the character of Lucy is modern for her time by expressing a desire to be a part of her husband’s work and complaining about how boring her housework is. Everything else about the show is basic sitcom structure, which was essential to its success.

Overall, Desilu was independent in institution alone. It broke out onto the television scene at a perfect time when company executives didn’t realize what extending the power TV would have on America.

I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T

In the article written by Thomas Schatz it discussed the success of Desilu Arnaz and his wife as functioning independently from major networks. What I got from this reading is that Desilu was successful in his decision to remain independent from major networks because it was more beneficial for him in the end. 

It seems as though Desilu had an understanding for what he was doing when it came to the production of his series. There were some complications seen between Milton Biow and Desilu because one wanted the series to be done in New York and the other, Desilu, wanted to remain in control over the production of his series and for it to be produced in Las Angeles. In my personal opinion I would have been on board with Desilu when it comes to being independent because you have more freedom in your production and in some way you are your own boss. From what we have learned in class there are some positives with being associated with an independent association because you have some kind of freedom when it comes to creating and you can be more artistic. 

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I think that the institutional independence of Desilu when it came to his production of his series is similar to the institutional independence we have been discussing in class. There are a few reasons I believe this to be true. One is because of the budget/ salary; for example Desilu had a budget for each of his episodes in the series and when it was necessary they increased the budget but as mentioned in the article, “Ball and Arnaz would have to come up with the rest out of their salaries”(Schatz, 120). This is similar to what we have learned in class because there are some independent films which have a low budget and sometimes have to provide a portion of the budget on their own. Also their is a similarity in which Desilu takes over full production and what we have learned in class about production of independent films. As I have mentioned earlier the positive of full production is that you don’t have someone else stating their opinion of what you should and shouldn’t do. Instead you have full authority over the creativeness of your film or in this case for Desilu the production of a series. 

Overall Desilu made a great decision standing his ground and remaining independent because he was able to become successful from having ownership over his series. The fact that CBS was willing to let Desilu have ownership was also a plus and the fact that they were flexible and willing to help with production and budget.