Lucille Ball is responsible for a whole lot more than I Love Lucy. In fact, Lucy and Desi Arnaz were television pioneers that changed the industry forever. Here are just a few of the things we have today because of Lucy.
Another thing we have today because of Lucy — The Lucy Collection!
1. Captain Kirk
Lucy and Desi had to fight to make I Love Lucy and formed a production company to get the show off the ground. After I Love Lucy was such a hit, their studio Desilu moved on to create other projects. Together they produced or filmed The Danny Thomas Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and shows starring Eve Arden and Red Skelton.
When Lucy and Desi got divorced, Lucy bought out Desi’s share of Desilu in 1962. The studio wasn’t doing well and took a gamble on a show that CBS rejected — Star Trek.
At first, Lucy assumed Star Trek was about celebrities going on a USO tour. But when she found out the sci-fi concept, she liked it. Still, there were problems. The first pilot was rejected by NBC, but Lucy had faith and funded a second pilot. This new version had a similar plot but one major addition — Captain Kirk. The brash captain (played by William Shatner) and the revamped script worked for NBC. The show aired for three seasons and gained an avid fan base that still thrives today.
Without Lucy’s support, Star Trek never would have never made it to air and the world would be deprived of Captain Kirk.
2. TV in Hollywood
In the 1950s, TV shows were all shot in New York. A complicated process of shooting live, using kinescopes, and brand sponsorship (all of which we’ll get into later), kept TV shows out of Hollywood. But Lucy and Desi refused.
Lucy and Desi made their home in Los Angeles and they didn’t feel like uprooting their lives for a television show. Especially when there was so much filming going on in their backyard! So, they figured out how to solve the East Coast vs. West Coast problems and kept I Love Lucy in Hollywood. In a few years, almost all television production moved to the West Coast. Lucy and Desi just did it first.
3. TV on Film
How did they solve the problem of shooting in Los Angeles? Film!
In the 1950s, television shows were shot and broadcast live. At the time, there was no way to go live to the entire nation. So, for non-East Coast folks had to watch their shows taped on kinescopes.
It sounds incredibly low tech, but in the 1940s and 50s, a studio would point a kinescope camera at a TV showing a live broadcast. Then, that low quality tape would air in the Central and Pacific time zones. The quality was poor and kinescope recordings were rarely saved.
That’s why Philip Morris, producers of I Love Lucy, were against shooting in Hollywood. The East Coast (where the majority of Philip Morris customers were) were accustomed to high quality shows. If they did things traditionally, that meant the show would go live to the West Coast, then be taped on kinescope, and aired the next day to the East Coast.
Desi proposed a solution: Film it! Just like making a movie, you could film the show, edit it together, and broadcast whenever you want, wherever you want. Plus, you’d have high quality filmstock, just in case you ever wanted to watch a Lucy episode again.
It was a great idea...that nobody wanted to pay for. So, Lucy and Desi took a paycut of $1000 a week to pay for film, with the caveat that they would then own the show themselves. CBS and Philip Morris agreed. Shortly thereafter, film became the norm for almost all television shows until the high definition digital took over.
Since I Love Lucy was on nice, beautiful film, they could reuse that film at any time. When Lucy got pregnant with her second child, she couldn’t maintain a full season schedule of 35 episodes. So Lucy and Desi thought, let’s air some old episodes!
The studio wasn’t sure if it would work, but the old episodes got great ratings and reruns were born.
When a show gets re-aired during its regular season, that’s a rerun. When a show gets aired on other networks (often at different times of day), that’s syndication. Since Lucy had the first show that could be aired more than once, she’s essentially the mother of syndication.
Unfortunately for Lucy and Desi, they decided to sell the rights to I Love Lucy back to CBS. On the upside, they used that money to buy movie studio RKO. That made Lucy the first female head of a movie studio, but it meant she lost out on future syndication deals.
Everytime a station plays I Love Lucy, CBS gets a bit of money. Considering how long Lucy’s been on the air, that’s more than pocket change! As of 2012, CBS made $20 million every year from I Love Lucy.
6. Filmed In Front Of A Live Studio Audience
For My Favorite Husband, the radio show I Love Lucy was based on, Lucy performed in front of a live studio audience every episode. As they worked on changing things for the TV version, Desi was worried. He knew Lucy’s comic timing was better with an audience and wondered if performing to a silent studio would be a problem.
Desi thought - why not bring the audience into the studio? It had never been done and many TV “experts” at the time thought it was impossible. But Desi gave it a try. The studio audience gave the show a great sense of energy, Lucy loved it, and it quickly became the norm for sitcoms for the next 30 years.
7. Multicam Sitcom
Desi wasn’t done innovating. He got the show on film. He got the audience. Now, he wanted more cameras.
Lucy and Desi intended to perform the show as if they were doing it live. There were no stops, except for costume changes (and the occasional flub). With one camera, this was relatively easy and how almost every show was shot at the time. But one camera angle for 30 minutes is pretty dull, so Desi decided he would use four cameras.
This multi camera setup allowed you to get long shots, closeups, reactions, and almost anything else you needed without having to stop. So, the actors got to keep their momentum, the studio audience loved it, and the audience at home got a visually engaging program, that also happened to be hilarious.
8. Quality Cinematography on TV
It wasn’t easy to figure out a multi camera setup for a sitcom, so Lucy and Desi hired Karl Freund. Freund was a well respected cinematographer who shot Metropolis, Dracula, and countless other beautiful films.
Freund made TV look beautiful. He created the lighting setup that’s still used today on multi camera sitcom and brought his artistry on film to the medium of television.
9. TCM Host Robert Osborne
Outside of pioneering a form of television that’s lasted almost 70 years, Lucy made made Turner Classic Movies better...before Turner Classic Movies was ever a thing.
Lucy met Robert Osborne when he was still an actor. She could sense he wasn’t quite happy as just a performer and encouraged him to write his own material. Later, he put his performing and writing skills together and became a beloved host on Turner Classic Movies. It may not be quite as revolutionary as Lucy's other inventions, but her contribution to Osborne's life is still pretty incredible.