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TVInews -107 TVInews - The World of Sam Donaldson, with former FCC Chairman, Michael Powell, TELEvisionFILM Magazine, Television International Magazine -- Sam's first article, "1939."
From the co-publisher/co-founder of TVI Magazine in 1956 -- to ABC's Legendary Newsman -- Sam Donaldson knows almost everything and anything about News reporting. Sam is pictured with Michael Powell, former FCC chairman at recent NAB show in Las Vegas. "When Sam A. Donaldson became part of ABC's roving television correspondents, no one was sure what to expect.
Industry is Always Interesting.
Not only is it extremely revealing from a purely factual standpoint, it is usually a graphic tribute to a handful of men who had the gift of foresight and believed in the impossible. But, history tends to become confused with time, events are all too quickly clouded if they are not recorded as they happen. TELEvisionFILM Magazine, (Television International Magazine) -- decided to trace video film back to its very beginnings. We wanted to uncover the material facts surrounding the first film series especially produced for television.
The task was not as simple as it might have been. Although TV film is thought of as being something comparatively recent the visionaries who pioneered the industry were hard at work long years ago. Any history of the first film series must also be divided into several categories. There was a first series, a first sponsored series, a first children's series, etc. In this brief account, then, we do not attempt to include all of the many names and dates involved in tv films family tree. We do sketch an accurate picture of the progress from the cradle to the point where film put on its first pair of long pants.
The year was 1939. W6XAO, one of the nation's first experimental stations, had recently gone on the air in Los Angeles with transmitting facilities atop Mt. Lee. There were only a few receiving sets, with postage stamp size screens, in its limited coverage area. Live television was getting its start, and at the same time television film was beginning also.
Patrick Michael Cunning, a young movie producer, had just made a feature film entitled Stars For Tomorrow with a cast and crew of 300 unknowns. After the premiere at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, Ray Coffin, then program director of W6XAO, congratulated Cunning on his work with these newcomers and advised him to take his troupe into television.
Pat Cunning showed a greater tendency toward the psychic than the practical when he heeded Coffin's suggestion. Working together the two organizations began to experiment with live television. late fall of 1939, Cunning began shooting the first series ever, for television, Tom Sawyer.
The production staff and actors applied themselves to Samuel Clemens' popular classic. They made up with enthusiasm what they lacked in experience. The episodes were first presented live, as Cunning recalls it "in order to work out the kinks", and then were re-done and shot on film.
Employing editing techniques that this group of pioneers devised, the shows were edited into ten, fifteen, and twenty minute time segments. In those days no one could decide just how long television shows would be. Those working with Cunning suspected that TV might depart from radio's format and present three programs per hour in twenty minute segments. They reasoned that in this way the hourly cost of television could be brought down to a more realistic level.
The first group of Sawyer films numbered eighty-eight and was completed in 1943. Shooting on the series has continued until the present. In 1940, Cunning moved to 6530 Sunset Blvd., present address of Five Star Productions, the Hollywood Gourmet restaurant, and radio station KBIG.
He established his own television production unit there which he called "stage eight" in memory of the stage on which he produced his first successful motion picture in the late thirties. In 1946, Edgar Bergen joined Cunning to form the Edgar Bergen Television Center; the two were associated at the Sunset address for several years.
As new stations went on the air the Tom Sawyer films were shipped to them and released. The episodes were all shot on 16mm film and Cunning recalls that they were the first films ever to be made using the single system camera.
During the war years many industry notables worked at "stage eight", including Marcia Drake, chief writer of the series, Glen Glenn, the sound specialist, Bob Clampett, cartoonist,and Coleen Townsend, former movie star.
In 1945, Hollywood was rudely shaken by the small earthquake that was television. More and more people were becoming aware of the new medium. The vast majority were still frankly skeptical of its future. There was almost complete agreement on one point; should television become in reality as big as its proponents, expected, it would at least be live, not film. One of today's top network executives is remembered to have made the statement that film would never constitute any large segment of tv's time and most certainly would be run only once if at all.
A few producers followed Pat Cunning's example, however. Their effort was marked by cautious probings and usually consisted of the making of a pilot film which didn't sell and became shelved as a result. But, in July of 1947, Jerry Fairbanks Productions shot a pilot which resulted in an NBC contract for the series.
The show was to be a "whodunit" affair entitled Public Prosecutor. Top NBC officials at that time were assuming the twenty-minute time segment. As a result the series (26 films in all) was shot in this length. The budget was low, around $8,000 per show, and the production schedule was tight.
At one time the Fairbanks' crew was turning out a show a day on the Hollywood lot. Once again W6XAO became a sort of testing ground. Late at night the early episodes of Public Prosecutor, starring John Howard, were aired, mainly to detect and correct technical flaws in the film. Prosecutor, which had gone into production in January, 1948, hit a snag about the time it was ready to go on the net in September, however. The NBC vice president who had suggested the twenty-minute time length was replaced.
Some of the shows went on the air employing a ten minute live "filler" talk by local law enforcement officials, but by the time the balance was re-edited to the new thirty-minute length another company had beaten Fairbanks to the punch, and with a national sponsor at that!
This newcomer to the series' race was entitled Your Show Time. In July, 1948, Realm Productions was organized to produce film for television. The principals of this group were Stanley Rubin, now producer for RKO (latest picture, The Girl Most Likely), Norman Elzer, the business manager of the group, Lew Lance, and Sobey Martin. Realm produced a pilot of the series in July and Gil Ralston sold it to American Tobacco for Lucky Strike.
The cigarette company agreed to pay $8,500 per program and contracted for a total of twenty-six shows. Realm joined forces with Marshal Grant, now producer of Mayor of the Town, and Grant-Realm Productions began shooting the series on the Hal Roach lot in Culver City in December, 1948.
The material selected was all in public domain following the line established by their pilot film treatment of Guy de Maupassant's Diamond Necklace. Judy Abel, now executive producer of the Lassie series for Maxwell Productions, handled the job of production supervisor. Others in the unit included Bill Bradford, camera man; Lew Asher, in charge of props; Raoul Krashour, music; and the head gaffer was Babe Stafford.
The main question in production was one of time, for Grant-Realm was operating on a bare minimum as far as budget went. Grant-Realm had originally set out making a tour of the banks, the first contract for television film tucked smugly in its briefcase. But the banks turned the deal down cold, for in those days no one had heard of residual rights.
Since production costs looked to be about $12,000 per program no bank would go out on a limb. Another interesting sidelight of production was that no one worked on Saturday. According to Rudy Abel this was the first five-day work week shooting in existence.
On January 28, 1949, The Diamond Necklace went on the air at 9:00 p.m., on KNBH (now KRCA). This was unquestionably the first film series made especially for tv to boast a sponsor. At the end of the twenty six program period American Tobacco offered to renew for an additional twenty-six, but the company turned it down . . . a decision which today prompts rueful grins when recalled by any of the principals.
Not only was Your Show Time the first sponsored tv film series, we might venture to say that it was the first really good tv film series, based on present day standards. The shows are still in syndication under the name of Story Theatre and reveal a remarkable fineness of quality considering the hectic conditions surrounding their birth. As a matter of fact, The Diamond Necklace won the first "Emmy" award for the best television film.
With a major network (NBC) going out on a limb for Fairbanks and a national sponsor (American Tobacco) betting on Grant-Realm, the gate had opened and the herd thundered out. Gordon Levoy reports that he contracted with six independent producers, among them Frank Wisbar and George Moskov, to film a series for Procter & Gamble entitled Fireside Theatre.
This was in January of 1949, and Levoy produced fifty-two quarter-hour Firesides altogether. The films were run two at a time to make a full half-hour show. Bing Crosby Enterprises took over the series in '50 and P & G itself later financed it. Fireside Theatre has been on the air continuously since 1949, and is the oldest film series to run un-interrupted under the same name.
Once again Jerry Fairbanks scored with a "first". His Paradise Island series which was begun in January, 1949, was the first musical film series. The shooting was done in Hollywood and the music recorded in Mexico City to circumvent the Petrillo ban.
A children's series on film, The Magic Lady, starring Geraldine Larson and her mischievous little helper named Boko, was completed and went on the air in September of 1949. The Magic Lady was in fifteen-minute time segments and was produced at Telemount by Henry Donovan.
To record more names and dates here would be over-stepping our goal, it suffice to say that: Tom Sawyer by Patrick Michael Cunning was the first series ever shot on film for tv, Public Prosecutor by Jerry Fairbanks was the first series ever signed by a major network; and Your Show Time was the first series on the air under the auspices of a national sponsor. Tv film today is in the healthy position of having more future ahead of it than past behind it.
End of Article "1939"
Biography: Sam Donaldson
ABC News Correspondent
Sam Donaldson, date of birth: March 11, 1934.
Samuel Andrew Donaldson, Jr. was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up just across the state line in Chamberino, New Mexico. His father died before he was born, leaving his mother and one older brother to run the family's cotton and dairy farm. His mother drove 25 miles every morning and night to take him to school in El Paso. Click For More Sam Donaldson
Biographical Updates and Video Clip was provided by the Academy of Achievement.
WMAL Presents Sam Donaldson on the radio! Tuesday - Saturday mornings at Midnight. With decades of experience reporting in Washington and particularly the White House, Sam Donaldson is the man for our times! Sam's interviews make news!
Click For Sam Donaldson's April 1956 article "1939"
Transcript of Sam Donaldson Interview With Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos
More Articles Converging News / TeleCom BuyOuts, Spinoffs and Asset Seizure Boom
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Publisher/Editor TVI Magazine
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