WARNER BROTHERS PRESENTS

U.S. Dramatic Series

Warner Brothers Presents, the first television program produced by Warner Brothers Pictures, appeared on ABC during the 1955-1956 season. Hosted by Gig Young, the series featured an omnibus format with weekly episodes drawn from three rotating series based loosely on the Warner Brothers movies King's Row, Casablanca, and Cheyenne. Although a one-hour series, each weekly episode reserved the final ten minutes for a segment titled "Behind The Cameras at Warner Brothers" This segment featured behind-the-scenes footage, revealing the inner workings of a major movie studio and promoting the studio's recent theatrical releases.

This short-lived series was a hit with neither critics nor viewers, and yet it still stands as a milestone because it marked the introduction of the major Hollywood studios into television production. The 1955-56 season saw the television debut not only of Warner Brothers Presents, but also of the Twentieth Century-Fox Hour on CBS and MGM Parade on ABC. The common inspiration for these programs was the success of Disneyland, which had premiered the previous season on ABC and had given Walt Disney an unprecedented forum for publicizing the movies, merchandise, and amusement park that carried the Disney trademark. Following Disney, Warner Brothers executives saw television as a vehicle for calling attention to their motion pictures. They were much less interested in producing for television than in using the medium to increase public awareness of the Warner Brothers trademark.

ABC had its own vested interests in acquiring a Warner Brothers series. By recruiting one of Hollywood's most venerable studios to television, ABC scored a valuable coup in its bid for respectability among the networks. As the perennial third-place network, ABC welcomed the glamour and prestige associated with a major Hollywood studio. The opening credits for Warner Brothers Presents pointedly reminded viewers of the studio's moviemaking legacy. As the screen filled with the trademark Warner Brothers logo superimposed over a soaring aerial shot of the studio, an announcer exclaimed, "From the entertainment capital of the world comes Warner Brothers Presents. The hour that presents Hollywood to you. Made for television by one of the great motion picture studios." Marketing the Warner Brothers reputation, ABC signed contracts with several sponsors who had never before advertised on the network, including General Electric and the tobacco company Liggett and Myers, two of the largest advertisers in broadcasting.

The alternating series of Warner Brothers Presents were seen by both studio and network as an ongoing experiment in an effort to gauge the public taste for filmed television drama. King's Row was a pastoral melodrama about a small-town doctor (Jack Kelly) who returns home following medical school to aid the community members and play a role in various soothing tales of moral welfare. Casablanca reprised the Academy Award-winning movie, with Charles McGraw in the role made famous by Humphrey Bogart. Rick's Cafe Americain became the setting for tales of star-crossed romance and, to a much lesser extent, foreign intrigue. The only series to make a significant impression in the ratings was Cheyenne, a rough-and-tumble Western starring Clint Walker as a wandering hero who dispenses justice while riding through the Old West.

Since the studio's objective was to reach viewers with its promotional messages, the "Behind the Cameras" segments provided a fascinating glimpse into the production process at a movie studio. They introduced viewers to the various departments at the studio, demonstrating the role played by editing, sound, wardrobe, lighting, and so forth in the production of a motion picture. Each segment featured exclusive footage and interviews with top movie stars and directors. On the set of Giant a wry James Dean demonstrated rope tricks and, in a rather macabre twist given his untimely death, talked about traffic safety. A gruff John Ford commanded the Monument Valley location of The Searchers. Director Billy Wilder and Jimmy Stewart explained how they recreated Lindbergh's legendary flight in The Spirit of St. Louis.

When the series failed to find an audience, however, the advertisers balked at the studio's emphatic self-promotion in these segments, particularly when the studio seemed unable to create dramatically compelling episodes. Critics, sponsors, and network executives agreed that the dramatic episodes were formulaic in their writing and perfunctory in their production. In part, this reflected the economics of early telefilm production. The entire $3 million budget that ABC paid for thirty-nine hour-long episodes of Warner Brothers Presents represented only a fraction of the budget for a single studio feature like Giant or The Searchers. Consequently, episodes of Warner Brothers Presents were written, produced, and edited on minuscule budgets at a frenetic pace unseen at the studio since the B-grade movies of the 1930s.

After considerable tinkering--including the recycling of scripts from several of the studio's western movies--Cheyenne emerged as the sole hit among the Warner Brothers Presents series. Had its ratings been calculated separately, it would have finished the season among the twenty highest-rated series. Observing the success of the bluntly conflict-driven Cheyenne, ABC asked the studio to heighten the dramatic tension in both King's Row and Casablanca, fearing, in the words of ABC President Robert Kintner, that neither series was "lusty and combative" enough to appeal to viewers. New scripts were written for both series, introducing murderous kidnappers and mad bombers, but neither series found an audience, and they were both canceled before the end of the season. In their place, Warner Brothers Presents substituted an anthology series, Conflict, which alternated with Cheyenne for the remainder of the season and for the next.

Due to the difficulties in gearing up for the rapid pace of television production, Warner Brothers lost more than a half-million dollars on Warner Brothers Presents. But the studio also achieved two lasting benefits. First, with the production of this initial series Warner Brothers crossed the threshold into television production where, in just four years, it would become the largest producer of network series. Second, it launched the studio's first hit series, Cheyenne, which went on to have an eight-year run on ABC.

-Christopher Anderson

HOST Gig Young

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

ABC
September 1955-September 1956        Tuesday 7:30-8:30

CASABLANCA (September 1955-April 1956)

CAST

Rick Jason ..........................................Charles McGraw
Capt. Renaud .............................................Marcel Dalio
Sasha .......................................................Michael Fox
Sam...................................................... Clarence Muse
Ludwig ...................................................Ludwig Stossel

CHEYENNE (See Separate Entry)

KING'S ROW (September 1955-January 1956)

CAST

Dr. Parris Mitchell ..........................................Jack Kelly
Randy Monaghan ..........................................Nan Leslie
Drake McHugh .........................................Robert Horton
Dr. Tower .....................................................Victor Jory
Grandma................................................ Lillian Bronson
Dr. Gordon ...............................................Robert Burton

FURTHER READING

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

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

Woolley, Lynn, Robert W. Malsbary, and Robert G. Strange, Jr. Warner Brothers Television: Every Show of the Fifties and Sixties, Episode by Episode. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1985.

 

See also Cheyenne; Westerns