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.


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