By the time the networks introduced regular prime-time programs in 1948, television's arrival as a popular medium had been anticipated for nearly two decades, during which the public had followed news reports of scientific breakthroughs, public demonstrations, and political debates. Electronics manufacturers spearheaded research into the technology of television broadcasting, which was envisioned by them as an extension of the existing system of radio broadcasting in which stations linked to powerful networks broadcast programs to home receivers. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which operated the NBC radio network, dominated the electronics industry and lobbied heavily to see its technology adapted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the industry standard.
Sidney Lumet's career began at an extraordinary and unique moment in the history of American television. For a few years during the first decade of television, the TV networks broadcast live theatrical performances from studios in New York and Los Angeles to a vast audience nationwide. These ephemeral productions—as immediate and fleeting as any witnessed in the amphitheaters of ancient Greece, yet staged in the blinding glare of commercial television—served as the training ground for a generation of American film directors, which also included Franklin Schaffner, George Roy Hill, Martin Ritt, Arthur Penn, and John Frankenheimer.
Before beginning a fifty-year movie career, Lumet worked at CBS, where he directed hundreds of hours of live television for such series as Danger (1950–1955), You Are There (1953–1957), Climax! (1954–1958), and Studio One (1948–1958). The craft of directing live television, invented through trial and error by pioneers like Lumet, required economy, speed, and precision: concentrated rehearsals with an ensemble of actors, brief blocking of the camera setups, followed by intense concentration on the moment of performance because retakes were out of the question.
Lumet's approach to filmmaking bears traces of this formative experience. Unlike many directors, Lumet begins each film with several weeks of rehearsal in which he and his actors come to a shared understanding of each scene, to ensure that the actual production runs like clockwork. On the set, Lumet works quickly, seldom shooting more than four takes of any shot. He often completes a shooting schedule in thirty days or less, and brings productions in under budget. In an age of superstar directors who may spend years on a single film, Lumet has worked steadily, building a career, scene by scene, film by film, through classics ( Dog Day Afternoon , 1975) and clunkers ( A Stranger Among Us , 1992).
Lumet's best films— Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon , Running on Empty (1988), and Prince of the City (1981)—are blunt and immediate. What they lack in formal precision, they make up for in the vitality of the performances and the conviction of the storytelling. Lumet can be a superb visual stylist when orchestrating confrontations between actors in confined spaces, but he is generally indifferent to the visual potential of his material and has never seemed concerned with creating a signature style. His approach to filmmaking, with its emphasis on preparation, ensemble acting, and an unobtrusive camera that captures the spontaneity of performance, translates the values of live television into the medium of film.
Twelve Angry Men (1957), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), Fail-Safe (1964), The Pawnbroker (1964), The Hill (1965), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Running on Empty (1988), Q&A (1990)
Bogdanovich, Peter. Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors . New York: Ballantine,1998.
Cunningham, Frank R. Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision . Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.
Lumet, Sidney. Making Movies . New York: Knopf, 1995.
The Hollywood studios were far from passive bystanders during this period. Having already invested in radio, but seen the radio industry controlled by those companies able to establish networks, the studios hoped to command the television industry as they had dominated the movie industry, by controlling networks that would serve as the key channels of distribution in television. The studios also envisioned alternative uses for television technology that would conform more closely to
the economic exchange of the theatrical box office. These included theater television, in which programs would be transmitted to theaters and shown on movies screens, and subscription television, in which home viewers would pay directly for the opportunity to view exclusive programs.
The plans of studio executives were thwarted by the FCC, which stepped in following the Supreme Court's 1948 Paramount decision, to investigate whether the major studios, with their record of monopolistic practices in the movie industry, should be allowed to own television stations. While the studios awaited a decision, the established radio networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—signed affiliate agreements with the most powerful TV stations in the largest cities, leaving the studios without viable options for forming competitive networks. Thwarted in their ambitions, the major studios withdrew from television until the mid-1950s. Theater television died in its infancy and subscription television would not become a major factor for years to come.
In the meantime, smaller studios and independent producers rushed to supply television with programming. The networks initially promoted the idea that television programs should be produced and broadcast live in order to take advantage of the medium's unique qualities. The networks supplied local affiliates with live programs for their evening schedules and a small portion of their daytime schedule, but each affiliate, along with the small group of independent stations that had chosen not to join a network, still needed to fill the long hours of a broadcast day—and there was not yet a backlog of television programs available. Television stations looked to feature films as the only ready source of programming, and the only features available to them came from outside the major Hollywood studios: British companies and such Poverty Row studios as Monogram Pictures and Republic Pictures Corporation. The theatrical market for B movies had begun to dry up after World War II, and these companies eagerly courted this new market for low-budget films, licensing hundreds of titles for broadcast. It has been estimated that 5,000 feature film titles were available to television by 1950.
Responding to the same demand for programs, small-scale independent producers in Hollywood also began to produce filmed series for television. The most visible early producers in the low-budget "telefilm" business (as it came to be known) were the aging cowboy stars William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd (1895–1972), Gene Autry (1907–1998), and Roy Rogers (1911–1998), but they were soon joined by veteran film producers like Hal Roach (1892–1992), radio producers like Frederick W. Ziv (1905–2001), and entrepreneurial performers like Bing Crosby (1903–1977) as well as Lucille Ball (1911–1989) and Desi Arnaz (1917–1986), whose Desilu Studio grew to become one of the most successful television studios of the 1950s.
By mid-decade, as the television audience grew and the demand for programming drove prices higher, the major Hollywood studios discovered their own financial incentives for licensing feature films to television and for entering the field of television production. RKO opened the market for the major studios in 1954 when its owner, Howard Hughes, sold the studio's pre-1948 features to General Teleradio, the broadcasting subsidiary of General Tire and Rubber Company that operated independent station WOR in New York. Warner Bros. followed in 1956 by selling its library of 750 pre-1948 features for $21 million. After this financial windfall was earned from titles locked away in studio vaults, the floodgates opened at all of the studios. Soon the television listings were filled with movies scheduled morning, noon, and night. The most famous of these movie programs was New York station WOR's Million Dollar Movie , which broadcast the same movie five evenings in a row. New York-bred filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have spoken fondly of discovering classic Hollywood movies for the first time while watching the Million Dollar Movie . In a very real sense, television served as the first widely available archive
of American movies, sparking an awareness of film history and creating a new generation of movie fans.
As the Hollywood studios began to release their films to television, they also began to produce filmed television series. Walt Disney (1901–1966) led the way in 1954 with the debut of Disneyland (1954–1990), the series designed to launch his new theme park. Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, and MGM joined prime time the following year. By the end of the 1950s, Hollywood studios were the predominant suppliers of prime time programs for the networks. The transformation was most obvious at Warner Bros., which at one point in 1959 had eight television series in production and not a single feature film. In order to meet the demand for television programs, Warner Bros. geared up to produce the equivalent of a feature film each working day.
While the studios specialized in high volume "telefilm" productions made with the efficiency of an assembly line, the most acclaimed television programs of the decade were anthology drama series that offered a new, original play performed and broadcast live each week. In the intensely creative environment required to produce a live production witnessed by millions of viewers, programs such as Studio One (1948–1958) and Playhouse 90 (1956–1961) served as the training ground for a new generation of writers (Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling), directors (Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Franklin Shaffner, George Roy Hill) and actors (Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, James Dean, Piper Laurie, Kim Hunter, Geraldine Page and many more) who became the first in a long line of television-trained artists to make the transition into movies.