HOLLYWOOD AND TELEVISION

The history of the vital relationship between Hollywood and television begins in the 1920s, as radio broadcasting created new opportunities for showmanship and entertainment. Film entrepreneurs eagerly pursued the possibilities radio awoke for various aspects of the film business, including production, promotion, and exhibition. One of the earliest was Samuel L. Rothafel, manager of the Capitol Theater in New York city, owned by the Loews Corporation. "Roxy", as he was known, took to the air on 19 November 1922, over WEAF as host of The Capitol Theater Gang, a regular Sunday night broadcast of the Capitol Theater's pre-feature stage show. Roxy soon became one of radio's first celebrity personalities, and Loew's flagship theater and films received the benefit of national promotion as WEAF became the central hub of the fledgling NBC network. This mutual publicity and benefit showed what a strategic alliance of the two media could accomplish.

Samuel L. Warner parlayed his interest in sound film technology into a Warner Brothers radio station, KFWB, in 1925, proposing that other studios recognize the potential in this new medium as well. Loew's New York station, WHN, provided one of the few consistent venues for black jazz musicians in the 1920s and early 1930s. Despite some exhibitors' objections, both Paramount and MGM announced their intentions to form radio networks in the late 1920s. Paramount eventually became half-owner of CBS until forced to sell back its stock in 1932; MGM went on to participate in radio program origination with The Maxwell House Showboat in the 1930s; and in a reversal of this pattern RCA, parent of NBC, acquired its own film studio, RKO, in 1929.

With the entry of advertising agencies into radio production in the early 1930s, the somewhat stuffy potted-palm aesthetic of NBC gave way to Hollywood-based showmanship, and film stars and properties made up an increasing proportion of radio's daily schedules. Hollywood became a major broadcast production center in the mid-1930s, with such programs as Hollywood Hotel, the Lux Radio Theater (hosted by Cecil B. DeMille), and most major variety shows featuring Hollywood talent originating from the West Coast studios of NBC, CBS, and major agencies. In turn, as radio developed its own roster of stars, the studios capitalized on a long series of radio pictures, from Amos and Andy's Check and Double Check in 1932 and the Big Broadcast films to the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby "Road" movies of the 1940s. The studios also capitalized on the promotional capacity of radio in the form of spot advertising, using audio-only trailers as an important part of film promotion.

This lucrative and mutually beneficial relationship, combined with FCC regulation, kept Hollywood from developing its potential for competition with network broadcasting by restricting the use of recorded material for syndication. Not until the advent of television did film itself present a strong alternative to provision of live programming via networks. Though Paramount, Warner Brothers, Loew's-MGM and 20th Century-Fox had all opened stations or applied for television station licenses in the late 1940s, indications from the FCC that movie studios would not be looked upon favorably in post-freeze allocations led to experimentation with other methods.

Hollywood studios plunged into television on three fronts: first, in the development of pay television systems in the late 1940s, designed to provide feature films on a box-office basis; second, in experiments with theater television, a method for projecting television onto movie theater screens; and third, in direct production for television, both network and syndicated. Paramount experimented with its Telemeter pay-per-view system, along with Zenith's Phonevision and the Skiatron Corporation's over the air technology; FCC discouragement of this potentially powerful competition to network broadcasting prevented pay television from becoming a reality and allowed the cable industry to find a foothold. Both Fox and Paramount attempted to develop theatre television but the expansion of individual TV set sales, combined with the FCC's refusal to allocate part of the mostly unused UHF band for transmission, brought this short-lived technology to a halt. By the early 1950s the studios had turned to television production, led by Hollywood independents but culminating in the Disney/ABC alliance that produced Disneyland in 1954. Warner Brothers and MCA/Universal followed, as network expansion and consolidation allowed a shift from live programming to filmed series. By 1960, 40% of network programming was produced by the major Hollywood studios and the proportion continued to grow.

Institution of the financial interest and syndication rules in the mid-1970s finally allowed the production companies to break free of network dominance of the lucrative syndication market. Combined with the growth of cable, where the must-carry rule helped provided new audiences for independent stations, the market for Hollywood-produced series, specials, miniseries and movie packages skyrocketed in the 1980s. Pay cable companies such as HBO and Showtime provided new funds for production capital.

By the late 1980s history had come full circle, as Rupert Murdoch's vertically integrated Twentieth Century-Fox corporation formed the first successful fourth network in broadcasting history. The new FOX network capitalized on a ready supply of in-house programming, newly powerful independent stations, niche marketing to youth and favorable FCC regulation to prove that the Hollywood film industry and network television broadcasting had only remained separate for forty years as a result of heavy legislative intervention. Paramount and Warner Brothers were not slow to take heed, starting up two new networks, the United Paramount Network (drawing on the success of the syndicated Star Trek series) and the WB (an almost exact imitation of FOX), in January 1995. Disney's purchase of ABC in 1996 confirmed the studio-network alliance. By the late 1990s, as cable, telephone, computer and broadcasting companies struggled for favorable alliances with Hollywood-based creative organizations, the relationship of Hollywood and television continued its cruise at warp speed into the integrated and interactive sphere of cyberspace.

-Michelle Hilmes

FURTHER READING

Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Balio, Tino, editor. Hollywood in the Age of Television. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Hilmes, Michele. Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

 

See also American Movie Classics; Home Box Office; Movies on Television; Movie Professionals and Television