ZIV TELEVISION PROGRAMS, INC.

U.S. Production and Syndication Company

As the most prolific producer of programming for the first-run syndication market during the 1950s, Ziv Television Programs occupies a unique niche in the history of U.S. television. Bypassing the networks and major national sponsors, Ziv rose to prominence by marketing its series to local and regional sponsors, who placed them on local stations, generally in time slots outside of prime time. Using this strategy, Ziv produced several popular and long-lived series, including The Cisco Kid (1949-56), Highway Patrol (1955-59), and Sea Hunt (1957-61).

Frederick W. Ziv, the company's founder, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1905. The son of immigrant parents, he attended the University of Michigan, where he graduated with a degree in law. Returning to his native Cincinnati, Ziv chose not to practice the legal profession, but instead opened his own advertising agency. His corporate strategies and his vision of the broadcasting business developed from this early experience in the Midwest.

During the radio era, Cincinnati was a surprisingly active regional center for radio production. Clear-channel station WLW, owned by the local Crosley electronics firm, broadcast a powerful signal that could be heard over much of the Midwest. Due to its regional influence, WLW became a major source of radio programming that offered local stations an alternative to network-originated programming. Cincinnati was also home to Procter and Gamble, the most influential advertiser in the radio industry at a time when most radio programming was produced by sponsors. Consequently, Procter and Gamble was directly responsible for developing many of radio's most lasting genres, including the soap opera.

Ziv's small advertising agency gained valuable experience in this fertile regional market. Ziv produced several programs for WLW, where he met John L. Sinn, a writer who would become his right-hand man. In 1937, the two men launched the Frederick W. Ziv Company into the business of program syndication. From his experience in a regional market, Ziv recognized that local and regional advertisers could not compete with national-brand sponsors because they could not afford the budget to produce network-quality programs. In an era dominated by live broadcasts, Ziv produced pre-recorded programs, "transcriptions" recorded onto acetate discs, bypassing the networks and selling his programs directly to local advertisers on a market-by-market basis. Programs were priced according to the size of each market; this gave local sponsors a chance to break into radio with affordable quality programming that could be scheduled in any available slot on a station's schedule.

Ziv produced a wide range of programming for radio, including sports, music, talk shows, soap operas, anthology dramas, and action-adventure series such as Boston Blackie, Philo Vance, and The Cisco Kid. By 1948, he was the largest packager and syndicator of radio programs-the primary source of programming outside the networks.

In 1948, Ziv branched into the television market by creating the subsidiary, Ziv Television Programs. His fortunes in television were entirely tied to the market for first-run syndication, which grew enormously during the first half of the 1950s before going into a steep decline by the end of the decade. In the early years of U.S. television, local stations needed programming to fill the time slots outside of prime time that were not supplied by the networks. More importantly, local and regional sponsors needed opportunities to advertise their products on television. As in radio, Ziv supplied this market with inexpensive, pre-recorded programs that could be scheduled on a flexible basis. In 1948, the first Ziv series, Yesterday's Newsreel and Sports Album, featured 15-minute episodes of repackaged film footage.

In 1949, Ziv branched into original programming with his first dramatic series, The Cisco Kid, starring Duncan Renaldo as the Cisco Kid and Leo Carillo as his sidekick, Pancho. Ziv's awareness of the long-term value of filmed programming was signaled by his decision to shoot The Cisco Kid in color several years before color television sets were even available. The Cisco Kid remained in production until 1956, but its 156 episodes had an extraordinarily long life span in syndication thanks to the decision to shoot in color. In its first decade of syndication, the series grossed $11 million.

Ziv produced more than 25 different series during the 1950s, all of which were half-hour dramas based on familiar male-oriented, action-adventure genres. His output included science-fiction series such as Science Fiction Theater (1955-57), Men into Space (1959-60), and The Man and the Challenge (1959-60), westerns such as Tombstone Territory (1957-60), Rough Riders (1958-59), and Bat Masterson (1958-61), and courtroom dramas such as Mr. District Attorney (1954-55) and Lockup (1959-61).

In order to carve out a unique market niche, Ziv tried to spin variations on these familiar genres. In the crime genre, for instance, he produced few series that could be considered typical cop shows. His most notorious crime series, I Led Three Lives (1953-56), featured Richard Carlson as Herbert Philbrick, an undercover FBI agent sent to infiltrate Communist organizations throughout the United States. While the major networks generally avoided the subject of the Red Scare, preferring to blacklist writers and performers while barely alluding to the perceived Communist threat in their programming, Ziv attacked the issue with an ultra-conservative zeal. By organizing the series around Philbrick's fight against the menace of Communism, the series implied that Communism was every bit as threatening and ubiquitous as urban crime.

Another crime series, Highway Patrol starring Broderick Crawford, moved the police out of the familiar urban landscape, placing them instead on an endless highway-an important symbolic shift in a postwar America obsessed with automobile travel as a symbol of social mobility. Sea Hunt which was produced for Ziv by Ivan Tors (who would go on to produce Flipper and Daktari), took the crime series onto the sea, where star Lloyd Bridges as Mike Nelson solved crimes and found adventure under the ocean's surface. The underseas footage added a touch of low-budget spectacle to the crime genre.

 

 

 


Frederick W. Ziv (right)
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research

The market for first-run syndication swelled through the mid-1950s, and Ziv rode the wave with great success. The watchword for Ziv productions was economy, and the company even formed a subsidiary called Economee TV in 1954. Production budgets were held to $20,000 to $40,000 per episode, which were generally shot in two to three days. As the demand for syndicated programming grew, Ziv expanded rapidly. In 1953, Ziv opened an international division to sell its series overseas. The operation proved to be such a success in England that Ziv found itself with revenues frozen by protectionist British legislation designed to forceAmerican companies to spend their profits in Great Britain. In order to make use of these frozen funds, in 1956-57, Ziv produced two series in England: The New Adventures of Martin Kane and Dial 999.

With production at the studio booming, Ziv stopped leasing space from other studios, and purchased its own Hollywood studio in 1954. By 1955, the company's annual revenues were nearly doubling every year. Ziv was then producing more than 250 half-hour TV episodes annually, with a production budget that exceeded $6 million-a figure that surpassed virtually every other television producer in Hollywood.

But the tide was turning in the market for first-run syndication. By 1956, the networks bad begun to syndicate reruns of their older prime-time programs. Since these off-network reruns-with their established audience appeal-had already earned money during the initial run in prime time, networks were able to sell them to local markets at deep discounts. As a consequence, the market for first-run syndication began to shrink dramatically. In 1956, there were still 29 first-run syndicated series on television, with the number dropping to ten by 1960. By 1964, there was only one such series left on the air.

As the networks extended their influence beyond prime time and the market for first-run syndication dwindled, Ziv began to produce series specifically for network use-a decision that the company had actively avoided for over two decades. Ziv's first network series was West Point (1956-57) for CBS, followed by four other network programs: Tombstone Territory, Bat Masterson, Men into Space, and The Man and the Challenge.

In 1959, Ziv elected to sell 80% of his company to an alliance of Wall Street investment firms for $14 million. "I sold my business," he explained, "because I recognized the networks were taking command of everything and were permitting independent producers no room at all. The networks demanded a percentage of your profits, they demanded script approval and cast approval. You were just doing whatever the networks asked you to do. And that was not my type of operation. I didn't care to become an employee of the networks."

In 1960, United Artists purchased Ziv Television Programs, including the 20% share still held by chair of the board, Frederick Ziv, and president, John L. Sinn, for $20 million. The newly merged production company was renamed Ziv-United Artists. United Artists had never been very successful in television, having placed only two series in prime time, The Troubleshooters (1959-60) and The Dennis O'Keefe Show (1959-60). This pattern continued after the merger. Ziv-UA produced 12 pilots during the first year and failed to sell any of them. In 1962, the company phased out Ziv Television operations and changed its name to United Artists Television. Frederick Ziv left the board of directors at this time to return to Cincinnati, where he spent his retirement years.

-Christopher Anderson

FURTHER READING

Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Moore, Barbara. "The Cisco Kid and Friends: The Syndication of Television Series from 1948-1952." The Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1980.

Rouse, Morleen Getz. A History of the F.W. Ziv Radio and Television Syndication Copmanies, 1930-1960. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1976).

 

See also Syndication