Studio One

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Studio One

Although it had its genesis as a radio program, Studio One became the longest running anthology drama series of the "Golden Age of Television," with more than 500 live teleplays on CBS from 1948 through 1958, and earned a reputation as a visual innovator in broadcast storytelling. A product of television's infancy, the series disseminated drama of a high order, bringing classical works and serious "one-off" plays to a wide popular audience, and sowing the seeds for a generation of Hollywood writers and directors to learn their craft on the small screen. While other series were known for psychological realism, Studio One, under its first producer, Worthington Miner, explored the technical and stylistic potentials of the medium.

Worthington Miner thought with his eyes, and focused on a highly inventive, visual mode of storytelling. For him, Studio One existed somewhere between live drama and film. It was a "live performance staged for multiple cameras." Whereas most dramatic series efficiently relayed a live performance using a static three-camera set-up, the camera movement was an integral part of the Studio One performance. The actors were positioned and choreographed so they could be shot through apertures in the scenery, and flying walls were employed. Elaborate physical productions filled the studio above Grand Central Terminal, and in the first two years of the show, Miner himself created 39 of the 44 live productions, employing techniques that kept audiences constantly attentive.

In a modern dress production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar during the first season, for example, Miner moved the camera in extremely tight for a close-up of the eyes of one of the conspirators, while the pre-recorded voice of the actor played over the live closeup. In this attempt to reveal thought, Miner jumped inside the character's mind, using methods that both unnerved and excited the viewers. For Battleship Bismarck the producer featured inventive camera angles, tight groupings, and quick, live-camera cuts in place of post-production editing—he often used long, shallow sets that allowed him to shoot from sharp angles. He also employed arresting lighting techniques for outdoor scenes, as in Macbeth starring Charlton Heston, one of the show's regular performers. This array of technical and stylistic devices created a specific form of visual storytelling appropriate for the infant medium.

These innovations were vital to the success of the program. Most outstanding dramatic material was already under option to Hollywood, which was not about to share it with an upstart medium that was perceived as a threat to the livelihood of the film industry. In addition, the film studios argued that kinescopes (a film of the image from the picture tube), which were broadcast later in markets other than New York, violated their rights to certain properties. Also, there were not yet seasoned television writers and television could not afford to hire established stage or screen dramatists. Consequently, Miner not only adapted plays from the great classical canon and other work in the public domain, but also drew on lesser Broadway vehicles and short stories.

In 1953 Felix Jackson became producer of Studio One and began his stewardship with a critically acclaimed production of George Orwell's 1984. He established the emphasis on original drama, most notably with Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, but despite these and other successes (The Defender) many of the works from the mid-1950s were "kitchen sink" dramas, stories of ordinary people dealing with a range of ordinary domestic and emotional problems. Larger social and political themes were largely left untouched. In spite of high ratings, sponsors and advertising agencies were generally unhappy with the quotidian locales and stories, feeling that they were sabotaging the implicit fantasies and dreams of consumerism presented in their commercials. CBS and Westinghouse demanded that Rose's Thunder on Sycamore Street, based on an actual incident involving a black family moving into a white neighborhood, be altered. Fearing for the sensibilities of Southern affiliates and their white viewers, the black protagonist was changed to an ex-convict. Rose partially managed to subvert this revision by withholding this information until the very end of the show. As Erik Barnouw notes, viewers responded with their own predilections, and the sponsors and network discovered that they had unwittingly presented the type of controversy they had hoped to avoid.

Actress Betty Furness did the commercials during the first year's telecasts and continued to do so for the remainder of the program's life on the air. Her live demonstrations of Westinghouse's household appliances made her the most famous and recognized spokesperson in American television.

The shift to Hollywood and film allowed the networks and sponsors to create something more akin to the production values of feature films. Intimate, minimalist settings and the "marvelous world of the ordinary" were on their way out. Filmed productions for television had the potential for an economic after-life in syndication, while action-oriented genres, especially Westerns, could be churned out quickly on film. Sponsors were relieved of the worry of approving a new set of characters and a potentially problematic script each week—they, and their audiences, could happily identify with a few ongoing characters and personalities instead. In 1957, the amount of prime time programming originating on the West Coast jumped from 40 per cent to 71 per cent. Studio One in Hollywood premiered in January of 1958. It still broadcast live but was off the air by September.

—Louis Scheeder

Further Reading:

Barnouw, Erick. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1975.

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Studio One

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Studio One