The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.
30 Years of Celebrity Television
From its early marketing as a domestic appliance, television has been a medium and device used to bring the outside world into the home. A unique medium combining aspects of radio, theater, and film, television brought live images and performance within the private confines of the home. One of the ways in which television solidified its presence and importance within the American cultural landscape was through its use of established stars in its programming. However, as historian Christine Becker writes, rather than replicating theatrical filmmaking, stars were used in order to “serve the new medium’s unique industrial and cultural needs.”1 As the medium has evolved and expanded, so too have production values and programming trends. One theme that has remained consistent over time is a cultural interest in stardom and celebrity. Although there are numerous examples of radio and film stars working on television, tonight’s program highlights examples of non-fiction celebrity-centered programming from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Through these, we can see how formats for talking to and about celebrities have changed (or not). Ultimately, none of these programs were ever broadcast. However, all three of these pieces articulate the (d)evolution of celebrity culture as well as how celebrity was constructed for in-home consumption.
First, we’ll see Celebrity Room (1964), an unaired pilot developed for NBC. Filmed throughout the Universal backlot, Celebrity Room features interviews and set visits with working actors and filmmakers. This episode features a set visit with famed comedian and television star Jack Benny as well as an interview with director Alfred Hitchcock during the filming of Marnie. Since the show was filmed on the Universal lot, this suggests that the program was as an arm of the publicity machine for upcoming Universal projects. Using stars to promote studios and studio projects was already an established practice, and this offers an opportunity to see how the practice was utilized for television specifically.
Celebrity Room is also an artifact of early example of industrial conglomeration. Talent agent extraordinaire Lew Wasserman’s agency, MCA, purchased Universal in 1958. Under pressure from the Kennedy administration, MCA divests itself of its talent operations to focus on entertainment production through Universal Studios in 1962. Universal expanded MCA’s media presence already established by Revue Studios, which produced, amongst other programs in television’s early decades, later seasons of The Jack Benny Show (1950–1965). Had it been picked up for broadcast, Celebrity Room thus served as an opportunity in which to promote MCA’s various entertainment enterprises.
How to Become a Movie Star (1975) is a panel discussion featuring television actors talking about how they broke into the entertainment business. This in itself is interesting as it suggests how television has established itself as a medium by this time to the point where it has its own stars who could in turn talk about their celebrity and give advice to other up-and-comers. The program’s featured “stars” included Julie Adams, who had starred in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) before finding regular work as a television guest star, and Robbie Rist, whose most celebrated credit at the time was his role as Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch. Created and directed by James Polakof for Cinema Financial of America (CFA), the short segment was intended for television distribution, but may not have been broadcast. A 1985 court decision found that CFA, headed by Polakof, intentionally made movies and shorts to take losses so they could then be used as tax write offs. How to Become a Movie Star was one such production.
Finally, we’ll be viewing the pilot episode of Celebrity Update (1989), a syndicated entertainment newsmagazine in the vein of Entertainment Tonight (1981–present). Hosted by Julie Moran (who eventually went on to host Entertainment Tonight) and Jerry Penacoli (currently a correspondent on Extra), Celebrity Update was an attempt to establish former NBC CEO Grant Tinker’s new television production company, GTG. GTG—Grant Tinker Gannett—reflected Tinker’s partnership with newspaper magnate Gannett Company, whose largest holding was/is USA Today. Prior to his tenure as CEO of NBC (1981–1986), Tinker founded and ran the famed quality television production company MTM (whose shows include The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hill Street Blues) with Mary Tyler Moore, his wife at the time.
GTG had huge aspirations towards becoming a major production company, as can be seen with their 1986 purchase of the Culver Studios. In addition to Celebrity Update, GTG also produced the drama Baywatch for NBC for the 1990 television season. However, the company soon folded after the 1989 cancellation of USA Today on TV, another daily syndicated infotainment program, and the 1990 cancellation of Baywatch (which was later revived in syndication). As a result, Celebrity Update never made it to airwaves.
Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.
1. ^ Christine Becker, It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 1.
James Polakof et. al v. Commissioner of Internal Revnue, 49 T.C. Memo 1300, (1985).
Becker, Christine. It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.
du Brow, Rick. “‘Business as Usual’ for Tinker Sans Gannett.” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1989.
Kaye, Jeff. “Why There’s No Tomorrow for USA Today Television.” Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1989.
Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Lindsay Giggey is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema and Media Studies. Her dissertation examines the relationship between contemporary reality television and celebrity as sites for network and individual branding. She is interested in the labor involved in creating and maintaining celebrity and how issues surrounding media convergence have affected the proliferation (and dilution) of celebrity in the past decade. She frequently spends her free time in an unending quest to clear out her DVR.