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TV’s hungry maw took big bit of pic biz

Studios lots opened for producers of live tube skeins

In 1956 Variety again allowed the best and brightest in the biz to sound off about TV and the inroads it was making.

A piece headlined “Thunder on Thursday” by Martin Manulis, the producer of the soon-to-be-launched “Playhouse 90,” extolled the virtues of the live drama experiment on CBS.

Here’s how the skein would work, he told readers: “The live shows will rehearse for three weeks. There will be three complete units, each headed by its own director — John Frankenheimer, Ralph Nelson and Vincent Donehue.”

These 90-minute shows would be done live from Hollywood three times a month, with a film as the fourth show. Multiple stars, which had been such a valuable asset on the drama “Climax,” would become the policy on “Playhouse” as well.

As for the movies that were filling up the holes between these difficult-to-mount dramas, folks were already sounding alarm bells.

National Telefilm Associates exec VP Oliver Unger described just how quickly the smallscreen was eating up Hollywood’s film output. By 1956, he said, some 5,000 feature films had been made available to TV stations on a first-run basis. There were still some 3,000 pre-1948 and 2,000 post-1948 features left to be fed into the TV maw.

“Movie studios in Hollywood,” he opined, “keeping a cautious eye on the dwindling receipts in theaters throughout the country — and not losing sight of the fact that changes are inevitable in the television film business — are opening their lots to TV producers.”

A lead story on page one by TV editor George Rosen described the ferment the smallscreen was creating in Hollywood. Under the banner “Television Stepping Up Production Vitality on Hollywood Assembly Line,” Rosen pointed out that indies like Hal Roach Studios were shooting as many as eight series for TV.

“It’s no longer a case of whether N.Y. or Hollywood becomes the No. 1 production center in television. It’s obvious by now that both will occupy a preeminent and prominent status.”

David Sarnoff, the eminence grise of the biz, was allotted a 2,000-word space to argue further the benefits of “networking,” a subject he had just tried to enlighten Washington about.

A network is built like a triangle, Sarnoff argued, the base of which is “the public.”

The other two sides are “service to affiliated stations and service to advertisers. Only as the network serves the public well will it be able to develop the circulation to give good service to the advertisers and stations. If it does not give good service to the advertisers, it will not obtain the revenue to give good service to the public and the stations.”

On a less theoretical note, Robert Kintner, president of upstart net ABC, chimed in with a cheerleading piece for “the three-network economy.”

The system was born, he argued, “because it answered many needs: the needs of advertisers and their agencies, of TV stations, of performers and producers, and most importantly, of the public.”

Kintner also acknowledged the role that competition played in bettering each rival.

“The success of Ed Sullivan on CBS brought Sunday spectaculars to NBC. Action and reaction — programming and counter-programming — means better programming, more viewing by more people and greater interest in TV generally,” he exuded.

Sarnoff and Kintner weren’t just trying to reach Variety viewers. Their arguments were meant to spur action in Washington — to speed up the awarding of licenses to stations in markets still underserved like St. Louis, Boston and Pittsburgh, and to reallocate licenses in some markets so as to allow a fourth, fifth or even a sixth station.

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