the American system of advertiser supported television independent
production companies and independent producers create and produce
programming independently of a sponsor or network's direct influence.
While networks still license, schedule and help fund independently
produced programming--as well as maintain liaisons who may monitor
and/or censor weekly episodes--the casting, writing and directing
remain the responsibility of the independent producer. Since the
mid-to-late 1950s, when television switched from live to filmed
shows, independent production companies have accounted for the majority
of television programming.
to William Boddy's Fifties Television (1993), the rise of
independent production companies is rooted in the mid-1950s, when
networks successfully wrestled program control away from sponsors.
In the golden age of live television, when programming originated
from New York, sponsors not only controlled a majority of the shows,
but were also responsible for their production. Many sponsors also
owned the network time slots during which their shows aired. As
the number of companies desiring TV advertising increased, the networks
found that controlling the time slots would allow them to realize
higher profits through multiple sponsorships and the sale of spot
advertising. Networks also found they could reduce production costs
by airing filmed shows (telefilms) that were produced either by
the network or--even better--by independent production companies
which absorbed the high cost of production. Through the 1970s, many
independent production costs were underwritten by commercial sponsors.
Independence did not mean autonomy for these producers. Underwriting
sponsors could interfere with and influence production. Furthermore,
networks obtained many of the rights and a significant financial
share of the programs, primarily through deals made by funding the
pilot episode and allowing it a place on the network's schedule.
While the 1971 Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn)
would eventually limit the network's ability to syndicate independently
produced material, the network's control over scheduling still affords
them incredible power. Indeed, in the late 1990s changes in the
Fin-syn Rules are restoring network powers of program ownership
and syndication and therefore encouraging networks to once again
become directly involved in program production.
were literally hundreds of independent producers and syndicators
in the early 1950s who provided first-run syndicated programs, as
well as previously released theatrical films, to local stations.
As the networks solidified their control over local affiliates--thus
controlling the bulk of local prime time programming--fewer markets
remained open for independents. And as networks became obsessed
with insuring hit programs, they began working with only those independents
who had proven track records; by the late 1950s, only a handful
of independents survived.
of the first independent production companies, Telecom Incorporated,
was launched in 1944 by William Pine and William Thomas. But in
1951 it was Jerry Fairbanks Jr. who became the first independent
producer to sell a series, The Public Prosecutor, to a television
network; Fairbanks is also credited with devising the three-camera
filming system that was used for this series. This technique became
key to later off-network (rerun) sales and syndication. In 1953,
Hal Roach, Jr., who inherited a fortune from his father, the king
of the two-reel comedies, made the first telefilm deal that included
pilot financing. The largest of the early independents was Frederick
W. Ziv, a radio syndicator who entered television in 1948. According
to Boddy, Ziv was convinced that American viewers wanted escapism
in their entertainment. Responding in kind, Ziv provided such first-run
syndicated series as The Cisco Kid (1950), I Led Three
Lives (1953), Highway Patrol (1955), and Seahunt
(1957) to local stations across the nation, many of which were not
yet connected to the network's coaxial cable. By 1959, Ziv and CBS
accounted for one-third of the revenues made from television's syndicated
programming. Ziv later sold out to United Artists.
The most significant of the early independent production companies
was Desilu, founded in 1951 by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Desilu
was as much the result of the couple's personal desire to bolster
their faltering relationship (which they failed to do) as it was
a part of their quest to amass a fortune (which they did). The marital
problems that eventually resulted in the couple's divorce began
long before I Love Lucy, when Arnaz's work as a band leader
had him constantly on the road. In 1950, Ball, a Hollywood B-actress
who found success in the radio comedy My Favorite Husband,
was preparing to make the transition to television. Hoping the series
would take Arnaz off the road, Ball insisted that CBS agree to let
Arnaz co-star. Ball later requested the couple produce the show
as a filmed series through their own production company.
the story of Desilu is quite romantic--a company built by the stars'
futile desire for happiness and love--ownership of a production
company had numerous financial benefits (as Bing Crosby, one of
the earlier independent TV producers, had already learned). First,
it allowed the actors to share in the profits brought by off-network
telecasts, as well as share in other subsidiary and foreign rights.
Furthermore, it allowed the stars to channel their money through
various corporate holdings, taking their profits in capital gains.
I Love Lucy and Desilu set many precedents, none the least of
which being the profit potential that lay in the ownership of television
programming. Today, as in earlier periods of television history,
the major lure of independent production is the possibility of huge
profits rising from syndicated sales of properties owned by the
production company. With this goal in mind independent production
companies and the studios with which they often work are willing
to sink considerable sums of their own money into production costs,
hoping to recoup the deficit when the series is sold into syndication.
Using a financial base constructed on this system, Desilu, and its
hit sitcom I Love Lucy, built a production empire that, by
the late 1950s, rivaled the size and output of the biggest motion
picture studios. At the same time, it solidified the position of
the telefilm and the independent producer's role in the medium.
Under the leadership of Arnaz, who popularized the use of the three-camera
system which had recently been improved by Al Simon, a producer
for Ralph Edward's Truth or Consequences (1950), Desilu not
only produced a number of its own series, but served as a studio
for numerous other independents, including Danny Thomas and Quinn
is perhaps the most successful independent producer. A nightclub
comedian and singer, Thomas was tired of life on the road and sought
the more stable life of a sitcom performer. Indeed, the title of
his semi-autobiographical series, Make Room For Daddy (1953),
was based on the line Thomas' kids used when their occasional father
returned home. Riding the series' success, Thomas became the star
tenant of Desilu, producing such successful hits as The Real
McCoys (1957), The Andy Griffith Show (1960), The
Dick Van Dyke Show (1961), and Gomer Pyle, USMC (1964).
Each of these shows had a complex financial structure. For example,
Gomer Pyle was produced by Andy Griffith's Ashland productions,
which itself was owned in conjunction with Thomas' star disciple
Sheldon Leonard, who worked under Thomas. To make matters more complicated,
Desilu made money as the studio and CBS got its cut from syndication.
least Thomas had a good sense of humor regarding the convoluted
nature of the business side of independent production. A 1964 episode
of The Dick Van Dyke Show, "It Wouldn't Hurt Them To Give Us
a Raise," finds Van Dyke's character Rob Petrie uncovering the
multiple corporations responsible for producing the mythical Alan
Brady Show, for which Petrie served as head writer. The Dick
Van Dyke Show itself was produced by Calvada productions, which
was a partnership of Carl Reiner, Sheldon Leonard, Dick Van Dyke
and Danny Thomas. Production costs for Van Dyke's series were underwritten
by sponsors Proctor and Gamble and Lorillard.
Quinn Martin, one of TV's golden age writers, is another independent
whose career started with Desilu. In 1959, Martin, who had written
for Desilu Playhouse, was approached to write a two-hour
TV movie based on the book The Untouchables. When the show
became a series, Martin remained as its producer. By the end of
the series run in 1963, Martin formed his own QM productions and
launched a number of hits that dominated the 1960s and 70s, including
The Fugitive (1963), The FBI (1965), Cannon
(1971), The Streets of San Francisco (1972) and Barnaby
Jones (1973). Martin forged a highly stylized tone with each
of his productions, the most obvious example being his use of act
numbers and epilogues in each of his series. His climactic finale
to The Fugitive also set the precedent for today's season and series'
before Martin developed his singular narrative style, Jack Webb,
with his series Dragnet, had become the master of formula
drama. Webb's independent company, Mark VII Productions, began in
1949 when he sold Dragnet to NBC radio. When the series moved
to TV in 1952, it became an instant hit; indeed, during the 1953-54
season, Dragnet was bested only by I Love Lucy. Webb's narrative
style, coupled with the series' bare bones production, made it possible
to convey a dramatic story with very little action, movement, or
cost. Webb based his Dragnet stories on true-life incidents that
came from actual police files. He had experimented with this on
radio with his 1946 series One Out of Seven, whose plots
were based on actual headlines. Dragnet ran until 1959, and was
later revived 1967; the new color series ran until 1970. Webb brought
his true-life style to numerous other series, the most popular being
Adam-12 (1968) and Emergency (1972). Like Quinn Martin,
Webb remained a prominent, if not dominant, force in television
for well over twenty years.
prolific 1960's independent telefilm producer was Filmways, which
began as a producer of advertising commercial productions, then
branched into television. Filmways' fortune grew when the company
linked with independent producer Paul Henning, creator and producer
of The Beverly Hillbillies. Henning was a radio writer who
made the transition to television by writing for Burns and Allen
(1950) before creating his first series, The Bob Cummings Show,
in 1955. In 1962, Henning drew from his southern roots to create
The Beverly Hillbillies. The series, which capitalized on
the growing success of rural based sitcoms launched by Thomas, was
one of the few break-away hits in TV history; in other words, it
debuted and remained in the top 20 throughout its nine-year run.
The Beverly Hillbillies spun-off two other successful Henning
hits, Petticoat Junction (1963) and Green Acres (1965).
Between Henning and Thomas, the Nielsen ratings were dominated by
a crop of rural sitcoms.
the 1950s and 60s, one of the continuing complaints against independent
telefilm production was that it was formulaic and two-dimensional.
Indeed, most, but certainly not all, telefilmed dramas and comedies
paled in comparison to the thought-provoking, well-written live
anthology programs the telefilm had replaced. While each body of
telefilm had a style unique to its producer--the Henning rural sitcoms,
for example, were much more irreverent than those produced by Thomas--they
each catered to the prevailing norm of providing the "least-objectionable"
programming, where real-world relevance was divorced from entertainment(a
strategy explaining why Gomer Pyle never went to Vietnam). In 1971,
however, two independent production companies--Grant Tinker and
Mary Tyler Moore's MTM Enterprises, and Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin's
Tandem Productions--brought back the vitality and relevance of TV's
lost age of live drama.
move toward relevance was predicated by CBS's desire to capture
a more sophisticated demographic; indeed, while a show like The
Beverly Hillbillies would play well overall, it failed to capture
upscale viewers with greater disposable income. Nevertheless, relevant
programming could not be accomplished simply through a new philosophy--there
had to be a product. Independent producers MTM and Tandem provided
who had worked as a writer in early television, became disillusioned
by the medium after the rise of telefilms. In the 1960s, he and
partner Bud Yorkin launched Tandem, an independent feature-film
company. After producing a series of marginally successful films,
Lear returned to television to challenge its existing rule of "least-objectionable"
programming. Lear's All in the Family, based on Johnny Speight's
British series 'Til Death Us Do Part, was like nothing which had
preceded it. Grounded in the conflict between a working-class bigot
and his liberal son-in-law, All in the Family took on civil
rights, Vietnam, sex and other relevant issues that had only been
touched, with limited success, by a few other series, including
Julia (1968) and Room 222 (1969).
a brief period of adjustment, American viewers made All in the
Family a continuing top-ten favorite. Through spin-offs such
as Maude (1972), Good Times (1974) and The Jeffersons
(1975), in addition to such hits as Sanford and Son (1972),
and One Day at a Time (1975), Lear quickly became the king of relevant
sitcoms. However, while Lear brought important issues to the forefront
of American entertainment, he also proved that racy issues and a
degree of vulgarity would be tolerated by American viewers. Thus,
sitcoms of lesser quality, such as Three's Company (1977)
or Married... With Children (1987), also found roots in
All in the Family.
year earlier, MTM Enterprises had emerged to attempt relevance in
a more sophisticated manner. Mary Tyler Moore had become famous
as Laura Petrie in the The Dick Van Dyke Show. In early 1970,
Moore was reunited with Van Dyke in a variety special; CBS was impressed
by the viewer's response. Eager to woo Moore back to series television,
CBS gave her and husband Grant Tinker the go-ahead to form an independent
production company that would produce a vehicle for Moore. The result
was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of the most critically
acclaimed sitcoms in television history.
All in the Family, which was brash and loud, The Mary
Tyler Moore Show provided its relevance through highly defined,
understated characters who developed as the series progressed. Rather
than attack issues head on, The Mary Tyler Moore Show met
them with subtlety and grace. As the series progressed, MTM Enterprises
grew, producing a series of successful and critically acclaimed
sitcoms including The Bob Newhart Show (1972), Rhoda (1974),
Phyllis (1975), and WKRP in Cincinnati (1978). Unlike
Tandem shows, which were highly dependent upon the singular style
of Lear, the MTM series developed their style from the ensemble
of writers and producers enlisted by Tinker. MTM, more than any
other independent, became a true "writer's company." Not since the
days of live TV had being a television writer carried so much status.
To this day, MTM represents a standard for quality television which
has been equaled only by those companies spawned by former MTM alumni,
including Taxi's (1978) John Charles Walter's Company and
Cheer's (1982) Charles-Burrows-Charles Productions.
Lear, MTM Enterprises also began developing dramatic series, including
Lou Grant (1977), Hill Street Blues (1981), and St.
Elsewhere (1982). MTM dramas placed social conscience over raw
drama and the impact of these series can be seen in modern programs
such as NYPD Blue (1992), ER (1994), and Chicago Hope (1994),
also produced by independents.
significant producer of drama to emerge during the 1970s was Stephen
J. Cannel, who, in conjunction with Roy Huggins and MCA-Universal,
produced the 1974 NBC series The Rockford Files. Cannel formed
his own production company in 1980, producing a series of action/adventure
hits such as The A-Team (1983), Hunter (1984), Wiseguy
(1987), and The Commish (1991).
Among the most successful independent producers concentrating on
one-hour drama is Aaron Spelling. Unlike Cannel, however, Spelling
has continued to cross generic lines, and is defined more by his
sense of light entertainment sought by large portions of the viewing
audience, than by any particular style. From The Mod Squad
in the 1960s, through The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Charlie's
Angels and The Rookies in the 1970s, Dynasty in
the 1980s, to Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place
in the 1990s, Spelling has been a major participant in American
television programming. Seen by some as a master of schlock entertainment,
he was also co-producer of Family, one of the most prestige laden
series of the late 1970s. Working with various partners in various
corporate arrangements Spelling has fashioned an true independent
to David Marc and Robert J. Thompson's Prime Time Prime Movers
(1992), the most significant force in 1970s and 1980s drama
was Lee Rich, a former advertising executive and television producer.
Rich's Lorimar Productions found instant success with The Waltons
(1972), and lasting fortune with such hits as Eight is Enough
(1977), Dallas (1978), and Falcon Crest (1981). Although
The Waltons launched a mini-revival of family entertainment,
it was Dallas and Falcon Crest that garnered the most
viewers. By bringing the soap opera format to prime time, Lorimar
also paved the way for continuing storylines in modern episodic
television. Rich left Lorimar in 1986; the company was later sold
to Warner Communications.
The rise of these and other dramas produced by independents tended
to dominate Nielsen ratings, giving rise to concerns that the sitcom
had outlived its usefulness. Then came Carsey-Werner productions.
Marcia Carsey and Tom Werner were ABC executives who started their
own production company in the early 1980s. As long-time fans of
Bill Cosby, Carsey and Werner yearned to find him a suitable vehicle--the
result was Cosby, which debuted in 1984. Aside from proving itself
a wildly successful hit for Carsey-Werner, Bill Cosby, and NBC,
Cosby revitalized the foundering sitcom format. By 1988, Carsey-Werner
had also developed A Different World and Rosanne;
in the tradition of Desilu and Danny Thomas, Carsey-Werner claimed
credit for the most successful series of their time.
Carsey is not the first successful female independent producer.
Indeed, while Desi Arnaz gets much of the credit for Desilu, one
cannot ignore Lucille Ball's active role in the company. Ann Sothern
also took an active interest in Anso productions, which produced
The Ann Sothern Show (1958). Susan Harris, who began her
career working with Norman Lear in the 1970s, produced such hits
as Soap (1977), Benson (1979), The Golden Girls
(1985), and Empty Nest (1988). Diane English was the independent
producer responsible for My Sister Sam (1986) and Murphy
Brown (1988), and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, in conjunction
with her husband Harry Thomason, formed Mozark Productions, which
produced Designing Women (1986) and Evening Shade
the programming itself, independent production has changed significantly
since the early days of telefilm. Rather than depending on sponsors
to underwrite production costs, the modern independent works in
conjunction with a group of production companies, with major investment
dollars coming from the television divisions of such studios as
Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century-Fox and MCA-Universal. Indeed,
it is not uncommon to see three or four production logos at the
end of a contemporary series, with each company representing the
stars, producers, and distributor's stake in production.
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