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!

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3 thoughts on “TV Loves Desilu

  1. Throughout the reading i was surprised more and more by the innovtions that Desilu created for the TV industry. The list is extensive with sitcoms, telefilm, new ways of shooting and editing with multiple cameras, etc. Although Desilu was created within an experimental phase of the TV industry, I was wondering if you think that if it had been a different company or a different time period if these innovations would have stuck as well as they did? I personally believe these innovations would have happened eventually but Desilu had the drive and guts to make them happen all at once. Furthermore, do you think that another major innovation spree is on the horizon or is the TV industry too set in its ways to tolerate another one?

    • I agree with you on Desilu’s drive to take risks, test the networks, and innovate television. Perhaps other independent studios could have done the same during that time, but I personally have not learned of any others that had the same established popularity Desilu (through “I Love Lucy”) had, therefore having more leeway with networks. A different time period on the other hand, might’ve hindered Desilu’s successes. After majors began to change the financing for TV, Desilu could survive only because of their previous profitable ventures. If they started out any later than they did, they might not have been as influential to the industry because they would not have the funds to stand on their own. Lastly, I do believe the TV industry may have an innovation spree soon! It may already be happening with the rise of Netflix and Hulu; perhaps different syndication and marketing deals will be employed in production companies’ favor, and that in turn will influence shows broadcast on TV.

  2. I agree with you, Desilu was really amazing. In the way that it change the TV industry with its form of shooting sitcoms and the technology used to shot it. This production company really did work independently from the networks and I guess because of this it was able to succeed. Yet, only because of the time period that it was in, since after the “laboratory period” the network companies got a lot harder to let the independent productions do what they wanted to do.

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