Wednesday, 20 April 2016

TV Comedy Deserts New York

It was just a matter of time. And technology.

When network television began its rise in the fall of 1948, programmes could only be broadcast live from New York City as far west as Chicago. The lines didn’t go as far as the West Coast. Furthermore, stars on the West Coast, who had moved there from New York in the mid-1930s for film work and took their network radio shows with them, couldn’t broadcast live to the East. They had to fly to New York to do television or suffer filming their live shows in Hollywood on kinescope (a camera pointed at a TV set) and shipping the murky films back to New York for broadcast.

Both methods were completely unsatisfactory. Network radio was dying and television was replacing it, but stars didn’t want to disrupt their careers with constant trips to New York (or move there) to do television, and they didn’t like of being viewed in constrasty, muddy kinescoped images.

Some of the stars saw a solution, at least until the coaxial cable allowed live trans-continental broadcasts was invented. They talked about it in this Associated Press story of February 15, 1951.
Comedian Revolt Aimed at TV Rigors in East
Most Dislike Being Uprooted From Homes on Coast

HOLLYWOOD—(AP)—The "revolt of the comics" today appeared to be hastening Hollywood's bid for bigtime contention in the television industry.
This is no organised rebellion. It is a growing distaste on the part of several top comedians for the rigors of doing television shows in New York. All of the men I polled have homes here and most of them are engaged in movie work. They dislike being uprooted for the strenuous life of eastern TV.
Furthermore, several of the comics are against "live" video, preferring to offer their efforts on film. Bob Hope is one of these.
"Why not take advantage of cutting?" he inquired. "Doing a show on film would cut out the sloppiness. As it is now, everything on television is a rehearsal. It's like playing your show in New Haven.
"The same thing happened in radio. People realized you can get a much better show on tape than you can broadcasting 'live.'"

Hope indicated he would do no more TV shows in New York. He has completed his first series and is signed by NBC for 10 shows a year, starting this Fall. "By that time, the cable will be in and I can do my shows from here," he said.
Abbott and Costello, who recently made their TV debuts, also favor films. They have one more eastern show to do and have turned down "fabulous" offers to do more.
"It's too much work," declared Lou Costello, the fat one. "Why, it's supposed to take eight days to prepared a one-hour show. When I was there, they had three guys follow me around to see that I didn't leave the rehearsal.
A and C plan to make their own half-hour TV films, "rehearsing one day and shooting the next."
Danny Thomas favors "live" shows, but also would like to do his from the West Coast. Says he: "It just doesn't make sense for us to disrupt our family lives just because of television. It would be different if all of us made our sole living from TV. But we have other things to do, too."
"This is one case where the mountain will have to come to Mahomet."
Red Skelton, who has not yet made his TV debut, told me: "You couldn't get me to New York on a bet." He plans to start a TV series in October and he will film a half-hour show bi-weekly in Hollywood.
Jack Benny is an advocate of "live" shows but would like to do his stint from Hollywood. He has trekked to New York for two shows this season. Eddie Cantor is reported eager to do his show from here on film. Jack Carson is also anxious to return to Hollywood with his program, in order to pick up motion picture offers. George Burns and Gracie Allen were the first comedy stars to switch their show from the east coast to Hollywood. Alan Young's has emanated from here since its inception. A new addition will be the Amos 'n' Andy show which will start here this summer.
Hollywood's challenge to New York's TV supremacy grows daily.
The situation soon became a moot point. On September 4, 1951, utilising a combined coaxial cable and microwave relay system, the Bell Telephone System made live, coast-to-coast broadcasting a reality, with 94 of the 107 TV stations across the U.S. airing an address by President Harry Truman live (the other 13 stations did not have microwave access). Eddie Cantor quickly announced he would originate 10 of his Colgate Comedy Hour appearances from West Coast studios after September 30th (Broadcasting-Telecasting, Sept. 10, 1951). The stars didn’t have to leave Hollywood for New York City any longer.

Interestingly, it didn’t stop some of them from going with the expensive prospect of filming their shows, notably Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who insisted on film. They may not have realised it at the time, but film created instant little gold mines. Filmed shows could be run again. And again and again. For decades in some cases. While waiting for the coaxial cable to reach the west, TV invented the network rerun.

1 comment:

  1. The other problem was, pre-jet travel, that the trip to New York on a DC-3 or some other prop=-driven plane took a lot longer than the current 5 1/2 hour jaunt from Los Angeles. Combine that with the far older and less centrally-located production facilities around NYC at the time, and by the mid-1960s virtually nothing but news, sports and a few game shows were still coming out of NYC (a trend that really didn't start to turn around until the 1980s).

    (Also, here's the YouTube video of Red Skelton's show from New York, about a decade after this story was published. I guess he lost a bet with someone from the United Nations. Not sure if he had to bring Art Gilmore with him, or if he was pre-recorded.)