“I do not believe that television can be stopped. Someday, it will undoubtedly have a future so stupendous that we cannot even foresee its possibilities.” ~ Producer David O. Selznick after attending a demonstration of the technology in 1937.
The film and broadcasting industries have been intrinsically bound together since the 1920s when the major studios started investigating how to best take advantage of the coming technology. A few of the major studios had grand plans to control television through the ownership of distribution outlets, both individual stations and networks.
Contracts negotiated by studios and independent producers began to contain clauses governing television rights. Indeed, television played a central role in Walt Disney’s decision in 1936 not to renew his distribution contract with United Artists. When United Artists refused to grant Disney the television rights to his feature films, he abandoned the company and signed with RKO—a decision that paid huge dividends for the producer in years to come.
American television made its long-awaited public début in April 1939, when NBC launched regular service with its coverage of the opening ceremonies of the New York World’s Fair. From the time of this inaugural telecast until World War II forced the suspension of consumer electronics manufacturing in 1942, Americans saw a flurry of activity surrounding television.
During the war, the major studios still assumed that they would be competitive in the television industry. Recognizing that commercial television would be launched almost immediately after the end of the war, the studios jockeyed for a place in television. However, the studios were also aware that conditions in the movie industry—a new round of antitrust litigation, an uncertain international market, and a rise in independent production—would necessitate changes in the studio system.
Following the war, the major studios continued to lay the groundwork for the eventual role of television in the studio system. Faced with a pending antitrust ruling that threatened to disrupt the movie industry, the studios had an unusually strong incentive for exploring opportunities for diversification. Warner Bros. and Paramount were the most aggressive studios attempting to diversify into television.
In spite of their clear designs on the television business, most of the major studios found themselves in the late 1940s with no real connections to the new medium and no incentive to forge ahead. The major studios were thwarted from gaining control of distribution, so it was independent producers who began to integrate television into the movie industry. However, the full-scale integration of television in Hollywood would not occur until the 1950s, when the major studios themselves would begin to produce for television.
In a burst of shortsightedness, many film studios put clauses into actors’ contracts forbidding them to appear on TV — even to promote their own films. However, the studios soon found that instead of being an enemy, television represented an important new market for their films. With the arrival of general audience TV, Hollywood had a new, seemingly insatiable, market for their old films. During the early days of TV they dug out old black and white films and sold them to TV. When color TV arrived, the studios again went into their film vaults and offered supplies of color films.
Television was gaining momentum rapidly. Those who could get access to television were choosing the stay-at-home form of entertainment over going to the movies, which required the effort of leaving the home. The movie industry was losing money fast and needed a way to generate some sort of profit. Studios decided to begin selling off parts of their film libraries to generate money. Now people didn’t have to go to the theater to see movies; they could watch them in the comfort of their home. One film studio alone could supply television with a staggering amount of material from their older movies.
Television in the 1950s became a life-preserver for film stars who had faded from the limelight. As the medium grew, so did the interest of former film stars in coming to television. Perhaps the most practical reason for former Hollywood movies stars to come to television was that these former stars needed to work. A symbiotic relationship formed between actors who needed to work and an industry that needed legitimizing. Just as early film borrowed from the theater in order to be taken seriously, television borrowed from the silver screen to be legitimized. Television even drew the interests of John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart may have even gone on to star on television if not for his untimely death.