INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION COMPANIES

In 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.

According 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.

There 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.

One 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.

While 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 Martin.

Thomas 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.

At 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' finales.

Long 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.

Another 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.

Throughout 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.

Television's 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 it.

Lear, 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).

After 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.

One 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.

Unlike 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.

Unlike 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.

Another 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 production empire.

According 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.

Marcia 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 (1990).

Like 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.

- Michael B. Kassel

FURTHER READING

Alley, Robert S., and Irby B.Brown, Irby B. Love Is All Around. New York:Delta, 1989.

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Boddy, William. Fifties Television. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Brooks, Tim; Marsh, Earle. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946-Present. New York: Ballantine, 1992.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM Quality Television. London: BFI Publishing, 1984.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

MacDonald, J.Fred. One Nation Under Television. New York:Pantheon Books, 1990.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time Prime Movers. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.

Newcomb, Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations with Makers of American TV, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983

Sanders, Coyne Steven, and Tom Gilbert. Desilu. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1993.

Thomas, Danny, and Bill Davidson. Make Room for Danny. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.

Tinker, Grant, and Bud Rukeyser. Tinker in Television. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms. New York: Collier Books, 1987.

_______________. The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

 

See also Australian Production Companies; British Programme Production Companies; Canadian Production Companies; Bochco, Steven; Cannell, Steven J.; Carsey, Marcie; Charles, Glen and Les; English, Diane; Harris, Susan; Henning, Paul; Lear, Norman; Marshall, Garry; Martin, Quinn; Moore, Mary Tyler; Spelling, Aaron; Thomas, Danny; Thomas, Tony; Tinker, Grant; Webb, Jack; Witt, Paul Junger