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What Desi Wrought
When Jerry Seinfeld pockets $250 million for the syndication rights to his show, he should thank the man who loved Lucy
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
They were soon married and, if hardly Hollywood stars of the first rank, they made a very comfortable living in films, radio, and live theater. But after World War II, a new medium, television, began to make serious inroads on the audiences for both films and theater. By 1948, the year Milton Berle first appeared on TV, there were nearly a million sets in American homes. Berle was such a hit that one year later there were four million, and the number was growing exponentially.
While still making pictures, Lucille Ball had been starring in a hit radio comedy called “My Favorite Husband,” which CBS wanted to transfer to television. Lucy demanded that Desi be cast as her husband. The suits at CBS were appalled. “Who would believe her married to a wop?” asked one, not even getting his ethnic slurs straight.
“What do you mean nobody’ll believe it?” asked Lucy. “We are married.”
After much give-and-take, a pilot was shot of what was then called “The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show.” Because Arnaz was principally a singer and bandleader, not an actor, his part was in effect his real-life persona, and the original concept involved a good deal of his nightclub act.
In the early days of television, sponsors were usually involved in the actual production, rather than mere time-purchasers, as they are today. Cigarette manufacturers were major advertisers at the time, and Philip Morris was interested but wanted to judge reactions. So the kinescope (a film made off the television signal of the pilot, the only way then to preserve a live broadcast) was shown to a few people. One of them was Oscar Hammerstein II, who, along with his many other talents, was known as a great “play doctor,” someone who knew how to fix a show that didn’t work.
His advice was succinct: “Keep the redhead, but ditch the Cuban.” Told that was impossible, Hammerstein said, “Well, for God’s sake, don’t let him sing. No one will understand him. Make it a warm, human story built around a wholesome, lovable, dizzy couple.”
At the time, CBS thought yesterday’s TV shows were worth about the same as yesterday’s newspapers.
“I Love Lucy” was born.
But if the basic creative decisions had been made, the business ones had not. CBS wanted the series done live in New York. The East Coast was where the audience was, and if the show was done in Hollywood, the East Coast would have to see blurry kinescopes. Lucy and Desi wanted to stay in Hollywood, so Desi negotiated. He suggested using their production company, Desilu, to film the show ahead of time. This solved the quality problem but would considerably increase the production costs, originally budgeted at what now seems a minuscule $19,500 an episode. Desi, picking a figure out of thin air, guessed that the increase would amount to $5,000.
After much hemming and hawing, Philip Morris and CBS agreed to come up with an additional $2,000 each. But Lucy and Desi, who were to be paid $2,500 each and own half the show, would have to take a thousand-dollar salary cut between them on each of the first thirty-nine episodes to make up the difference.
Arnaz made a counteroffer. He and Lucy would take the salary cut, provided CBS gave them sole ownership. Since in 1951 most television shows were done live and preserved only on kinescopes, yesterday’s TV shows, CBS thought, were worth about the same as yesterday’s newspapers. So CBS readily agreed. The suits figured they weren’t giving up much.
But Arnaz knew that he and Lucy weren’t giving up much either. “In our income tax bracket,” he explained, “we might have ended up with about $5,000 of the $39,000 we were losing [in salary cuts]. So in effect, we were buying the other half of the series for $5,000.”
That, of course, turned out to be the bargain of the century. Because “I Love Lucy” was filmed, not performed live, for the first time in television, there was something worth selling after the original broadcast was over, and because “I Love Lucy” turned into one of the biggest hits in the history of show business, there was no lack of offers to buy.
There still isn’t. Today, forty-eight years after its premiere, the price of broadcasting a single episode of “I Love Lucy” is $100,000. That’s not much compared with what “Seinfeld” will get in syndication, but it’s twenty times what Desi Arnaz paid for half the rights to all the episodes.