Fans of American television history shouldn’t miss the series TV Moguls which begins Sunday night on TV1. Honouring the (mostly) men and sole woman who were instrumental in television production management, this series begins in the 1950s.
The series features several interviews with writers, producers and stars, but it’s just as fascinating for its archival footage.
Dominating the episode and the decade were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz who turned a hit radio show into a sitcom. But there were significant decisions made by the couple which trailblazed television production, despite the fact that Arnaz was little more than a ‘bongo-playing Cuban’ and Ball, a sometime successful movie actress.
At the time most television production emanated from New York City, but Ball and Arnaz were determined to build a family in Los Angeles. When they refused their new sitcom deal with CBS was almost cancelled, until Arnaz came up with a plan to shoot the series on film, and called in a Hollywood cinematographer to devise a 3 camera system that allowed their comedic teleplays to be shot from several angles without stopping. Arnaz had just created the traditional studio 3 camera system. CBS however baulked at the extra expense, so Arnaz, ever the quick-thinking manager, agreed to foot the bill if CBS let him keep the rights to the episodes. At the time there was no such thing as reruns or syndication, so CBS agreed. It was a masterstroke that would net the two a fortune. I Love Lucy was an instant super-hit.
DesiLu Studios went on to become so big and successful that other television shows followed to Los Angeles. Arnaz also noticed he had to pay his production crew a weekly salary despite them only working two days a week on the sitcom, so he initiated a second series, Our Miss Brooks. Soon DesiLu was a giant in television, producing several shows including The Untouchables, a passing connection to Star Trek -but ironically, compromising the marriage of its two stars in the process.
The other key moguls of the 1950s were Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas, whose sitcom Make Room for Danny / The Danny Thomas Show were so popular, the two also produced The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show. Producer Sheldon Leonard told writer Carl Reiner to re-cast his own performing role with Dick Van Dyke and turned a failed sitcom into a hit. He also cast Mary Tyler Moore (pictured) and child actor Ron Howard in his shows, both of whom went on to become household names. Sheldon Leonard was so influential in television production, even writer Chuck Lorre named his two male characters in The Big Bang Theory after him.
Introducing the series is the ageing but legendary Merv Griffin, with narration by Alan Arkin. Others to feature in subsequent episodes from the 60s to the 90s include Quinn Martin, Sherwood Schwartz, Aaron Spelling, Dick Wolf, Stephen Bochco, Stephen J. Cannell, Darren Star and David E. Kelley. You will be privvy to interviews from Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Tony Randall, Jean Stapleton, Henry Winkler, Gavin McLeod, Alec Baldwin, Ricardo Montalban, Betty White, James Garner, Dennis Franz, Jason Priestley, Sarah Jessica Parker, William Petersen, David Caruso and Anthony LaPaglia.
The first episode also features a 1984 interview with Lucille Ball as she talks about those early pioneering days. It’s rarities like this that make this a bit of a treat for true television buffs.
TV Moguls airs 9:30pm Sunday January 4 on TV1.