Saturday, 30 May 2009

Televison Writer and Producer Michael Ross Passes On

Michael Ross, veteran writer of American sitcoms, passed on Tuesday at the age of 89. The causes were complications from a stroke and a heart attack.

Michael Ross was born Isidore Rovinsky in New York City on August 4, 1919. He grew up in a Yiddish speaking home and Jewish causes would be important to him all his life. He attended The City College of New York. His room mate at college was one Bernard West, who would become better known as Bernie West. He graduated in 1939. During World War II he was a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces in Europe. He was shot down in France, but managed to escape to England.

Ross would later join his friend Bernie West as a comedy team in vaudeville in the Forties--the beginning of a career that spanned forty years. In the Fifties Ross was a director for shows at a resort in n the Adirondack Mountains. On television he worked on both The Martha Raye Show and The Garry Moore Show. It was while working on The Martha Raye Show that Ross first met Norman Lear. When Norman Lear's American adaptation of the British series Till Death Us Do Part finally made it to American television in 1971, he hired Michael Ross and Bernie West as story editors. The two would go onto write several episodes of the series. Ross and West would eventually be promoted to producers on the show.

Ross and West wrote the pilot for Chico and the Man. Ross also created The Jeffersons with Don Nicholl and with Bernie West produced many of the show's episodes. Michael Ross, Bernie West, and Don Nichol would go onto create Three's Company, which was an American remake of the British series Man About the House. It was Nicholl, Ross, and West who decided the show would work best as farce. Although much was made of the sexual content of the show at the time, it was actually very tame. Like the sex comedies of the Sixties, it relied primarily on innuendo, gross misunderstandings, and slapstick. The show would prove extremely successful, lasting eight seasons. It produced a spinoff The Ropers (also produced by Nicholl, Ross, and West) and a sequel series Three's a Crowd (produced by Ross and West).

Michael Ross and Bernie West were among the best writing teams in television. They wrote many of the classic episodes of All in the Family and The Jeffersons. And while Three's Company still comes under attack from critics today, I maintain it was one of the best and most inventive sitcoms of the Seventies. In fact, it is one of the few times that farce or screwball comedy has worked on American television in a sitcom. That Nicholl, Ross, and West created an American farce that lasted eight years is then admirable, and proof of the talent of Michael Ross.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Joan Alexander R.I.P.

Joan Alexander, the voice of Lois Lane on the radio show The Adventures of Superman, passed on May 21 at the age of 94. The cause was an intestinal blockage.

Joan Alexander was born Louise Abrass in St. Paul, Minnesota on April 16, 1915. He father passed on when she was only three years old. After he mother had re-married, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Louise Abrass was sent to a convent school in Long Island, New York. She took up a career in modelling as a young woman, taking the name "Joan" after the actress Joan Crawford, whom she admired. Alexander went onto study acting with Benno Schneider, a director in Yiddish theatre, in Europe. She toured the Continent quite often in the Thirties.

Once back in the United States, Joan Alexander would turn to radio. She would become most famous as the voice of Lois Lane on The Adventures of Superman. Alexander was actually the third actress to play the role on the show (she was preceded by Helen Choate and Rolly Bester), but she remained with the role longer than any other actress in any medium. She would also provide the voice of Lois Lane in the seventeen Superman animated shorts made by Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943. She would later provide the voice of Lois Lane on the Sixties Filmation The New Adventures of Superman. Joan Alexander's career in radio was very extensive. She also played Della Street on the radio version of Perry Mason, in episodes of the series Dimension X, Philo Vance, and on dramas and soap operas such as Against the Storm, Light of the World, Lone Journey, and This is Nora Drake.

Joan Alexander would have a small career in television. She appeared as a semi-regular on Captain Video and His Video Rangers. She also appeared in one episode of The Doctor. In the early Fifties she was a panellist on the game show The Name's the Same. In the Sixties she appeared on Broadway in the play Poor Richard. Afterwards she settled into life as a hostess and homemaker.

For millions of people out there, Joan Alexander is the voice they identify as Lois Lane. She played the role far longer than any other actress in any medium. What is more, she also played Lois Lane on the Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons and on the Sixties television cartoon. In many respects she could be considered as responsible for shaping the character we know as Lois Lane as any of the writers in the comic books. In this respect, American pop culture owes her an enormous debt.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Television Networks of Paramount

Most people probably think that Paramount's first involvement with a television network was UPN (the United Paramount Network). As it so happens, UPN was not the first network founded by Paramount. They had founded a network well before UPN, very nearly founded another, and were involved in other ways with yet others.

In fact, Paramount Pictures had been involved in television very early in its history. It was in 1939 that Paramount started an experimental station in Los Angeles which would later become KTLA and an experimental station in Chicago that would later become WBBM-TV. It would also invest in DuMont Laboratories, the pioneer developer of television equipment and television sets, and as a result Paramount invested in the DuMont Television Network.

Given that Paramount had invested in DuMont, it might seem strange that they founded their own network, but that is exactly what they did. What is more, Paramount had plans for its network many years before its first broadcast. In December 1944 Paramount Pictures applied to the FCC for a licence to establish relay stations which would have tested the viability of a coast to coast network. In the March 15, 1948 issue of Time in the article "Teevee Pains," it was told how Paramount Pictures planned to film television programmes for distribution over a nationwide "celluloid network."

Paramount's goal of its own network came to fruition in January 1949 when Paramount founded the Paramount Television Network. Paramount even announced the creation of the new network with a full page advertisement in Television. In part, the ad read, "WBKB- First in televiewer popularity in Chicago. WBKB leads in every poll! First in the confidence of TV advertisers in America's No. 2 retail market." Of course, as mentioned earlier, Paramount owned two stations: KTLA in Los Angeles and WBKB (which became WBBM-TV) in Chicago.

Unfortunately, Paramount's investment in DuMont may well have endangered the survival of both DuMont and the Paramount Television Network. The Federal Communications Commission had set the maximum number of television stations that any company could own at five stations. Not only had Paramount invested in DuMont, but it refused to sell its shares in the network. This would effectively sentence both DuMont and the Paramount Television Network to death, as the FCC restricted Dumont to owning only three stations and restricted the Paramount Television Network to owning only two. This put both DuMont and Paramount Television Network at a serious disadvantage when it came to competing with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and even the rather feeble American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

The Paramount Television Network did not last long. In 1950 it provided programming for forty different stations ranging from KOTV in Tulsa, Oklahoma to KPIX in San Francisco. With regards to programming, it only produced five different series in its short lifespan. Dixie Showboat was a musical variety show of the sort often found on local stations in the Fifties. The Paramount Television Network also broadcast wrestling. Its other three shows were of a bit more historical importance. Hollywood Reel was the first movie news show on American broadcast television. Spade Cooley was a variety show featuring Western Swing performer Spade Cooley, who would become more famous for allegedly killing his wife in 1961 than he was for his work. Finally, the Paramount Television Network was the first network to bring Bob Clampett's legendary puppet show Time for Beany to a national audience.

The Paramount Television Network would not survive long. Its ability to compete with the other networks had been seriously hampered by being restricted to owning only two television stations. The Federal government would also lead to the Paramount Television Network's dissolution in another way. In 1948 the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. that movie studios could not also own theatre chains. Paramount Pictures, Inc. then became two companies: the studio Paramount Pictures Corporation and the theatre chain United Paramount Theatres in 1949. In 1953 United Paramount Theatres acquired ABC, providing the network (then on the edge of collapse) with much needed capital. In the wake of this, Paramount sold its Chicago station to CBS, but kept KTLA in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this was the death blow for the Paramount Television Network. The network ceased to exist in 1953.

As to Dumont itself, the network had at one time been a very close competitor to ABC. There was a time when there was a very real possibility that it could have survived rather than ABC. Unfortunately, when United Paramount Theatres came to the rescue of ABC, this dealt a death blow to DuMont. The network staggered along until 1956, when it finally ceased to operate as a network. The company itself would become eventually Metromedia. Metromedia and its stations would be sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and 20th Century Fox Film Corporation (co-owned by Murdoch) in the Eighties. Murdoch would use the old Metromedia stations (which had once been Dumont stations) to create the Fox Broadcasting Company. The Fox network is then nothing more than the old DuMont resurrected under another name...

With the demise of both Dumont and the Paramount Television Network, in the mid-Fifties it must have appeared that Paramount would never be involved in television. Oddly enough for a studio involved in television from an early date, Paramount did not produce television shows as did other studios such as Universal, Columbia (under the Screen Gems name), and MGM. In fact, it would not be until the late Sixties that Paramount would re-enter television.

In the early Sixties Paramount's survival was in serious doubt, as were most of the major studios. Losing a good deal of money each year, the studio was sold to the conglomerate Gulf+Western Industries in 1966. In 1967 Lucille Ball sold Desilu Productions to Gulf+Western Industries. Gulf+Western then promptly renamed the Desilu, "Paramount Television." Paramount inherited what would become some very valuable properties from Desilu, including shows that were still on the air: Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and Mannix. Paramount Television would become very successful, producing such shows as Love, American Style, The Odd Couple, Cheers, and so on.

It was in 1974 that Barry Diller, who had served many years at ABC, became Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Paramount Pictures Corporation. It was not long before Diller pitched the idea of a fourth network to Paramount's board. It was on on June 17, 1977 that Paramount announced its intent to form a fourth television network, the Paramount Television Service (PTVS). The plan at the time was that PTVS would initially broadcast only one night a week. Its cornerstone series would have been Star Trek: Phase II, a sequel to the original Star Trek, which would have been followed by a made for television movie under the heading Movie of the Week. The new network was set to launch in either April or May 1978.

Sadly, the Paramount Television Service would never come into being. Six months before PTVS was set to debut, Paramount ended the project. Charles Blühdorn, the head of Paramount's parent conglomerate Gulf+Western, worried that PTVS would lose too much money. As to Star Trek: Phase II, it was transformed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Although PTVS would never come into being, Paramount Television would find success in syndicated shows. The success of Solid Gold in the late Seventies and Entertainment Tonight in the Eighties would be followed by success with two Star Trek spinoffs, War of the Worlds, The Untouchables, and The Arsenio Hall Show.

While PTVS never emerged, history shows that Paramount would once more become involved in a television network. In the early Nineties circumstances developed that would lead to the eventual creation of the United Paramount Network or UPN. Foremost among these was Paramount's purchase of the TVX Broadcast Group in 1991. The group was renamed the Paramount Stations Group and would form the core of what would become UPN.

Another development occurred when Warner Brothers and Chris-Craft Industries teamed up to create a programming block called the Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN) in 1993. PTEN initially offered two hours of programming once a week to stations and by its second year was offering two nights a week. Babylon 5 was part of the original programming block. The following year it was joined by Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. PTEN was launched with the possibility of becoming a fifth network in mind. It never achieved this, although it can be seen as a forerunner of both The WB (which Warner Brothers owned) and UPN (which Chris Craft and Paramount owned). In fact, its demise would largely be due to the formation of those two networks.

Another development which may or may not have had a development in the creation of UPN may have been Viacom's purchase of Paramount in 1993. In 1970 the Federal Communications Commission had created a set of new rules (Financial Interest and Syndication Rules) in which television networks could not own television syndication companies (it would be repealed in 1996). CBS then had to divest itself of its syndicator, CBS Films Inc. In 1971 the company was renamed Viacom and in 1973 it was spun off from CBS as its own company. Viacom owned many lucrative properties, including I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show. It was not long before it had enough money to actually buy television stations. By the Nineties it was powerful enough to buy Paramount.

In 1994 Chris-Craft Industries, which had been partners with Warner Brothers in the Prime Time Entertainment Network, joined forces with Paramount to create the United Paramount Network or UPN. Just as Paramount had announced the creation of the Paramount Television Network four decades earlier with an advertisement, UPN was also announced in a series of ads. In this case, starting around December 1994 the new network was announced on the stations that would become UPN affiliates in commercials which boasted, "What more do you need to know? Coming January 16, look for it." UPN launched on January 16, 1995.

Unfortunately, UPN would have to compete with more than NBC, CBS, ABC, and Dumont--I mean, Fox. At the same time Warner Brothers had decided to create its own network, The WB. In many respects, then, Paramount found itself in a situation similar to the one in which it had been in the early Fifties. At that time it was a matter of doubt as to whether Dumont or ABC would be the surviving network (there was no doubt that the Paramount Television Network would not survive). In the late Nineties, there was some question as to whether both UPN and The WB could survive, and if not then which one would survive.

Unfortunately, just as poor judgement on the part of Paramount doomed both Dumont and the Paramount Television Network, so too would poor decisions on the part of Paramount doom UPN. Initially it had been decided that UPN's programming would be designed to appeal to the lucrative young male audience. To this end UPN's first schedule was filled with action-adventure series. In fact, its first broadcast was the two hour premiere of Star Trek: Voyager. Among UPN's other early series were the cult series Nowhere Man, the superhero series The Sentinel, and the science fiction Western Legend. Initially, it looked as if UPN might perform better than The WB. In fact, while three of UPN's series survived its first season, only one series on The WB (Unhappily Ever After) survived that network's first season.

Sadly, UPN's early victories over The WB would not last. Even as its first season unfolded, UPN saw changes which would ultimately result in a decision to shift its programming away from action series as originally planned and towards urban comedies. UPN cancelled nearly every one of their shows (including the cult series Nowhere Man), sparing only Star Trek: Voyager, The Sentinel, and wrestling. They would be replaced by such shows as Moesha, Malcolm and Eddie, and Sparks. Given the paucity of minorities on the Big Four networks at the time, this was to some degree admirable (at least if such series were produced with some sensitivity to their audience). And it would give UPN a niche that the other networks had ignored for most of their histories. Unfortunately, the audience for urban comedies was a much smaller and much less lucrative one than the one for action-adventure series.

Although never to the extent which UPN had, The WB would also programme several urban comedies in its second season. While The WB would go onto develop teen dramas (Dawson's Creek) and action-adventure series of the sort once aired by UPN (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel), however, UPN remained television's foremost purveyor of urban comedies. This would ultimately cost UPN viewers, placing it consistently behind The WB in the ratings. Worse yet, UPN's comedies were at times sources of controversy for the network. One sitcom, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, set during the War Between the States and centred on Abraham Lincoln's black valet, drew such protests from African Americans that it was pulled from the air after one month. Director Spike Lee spoke out against UPN's sitcoms in general and often singled out The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer in his attacks on the network at the time. The show would provide part of the inspiration for Lee's satire on television Bamboozled.

The year 2000 would be an eventful one for Paramount. It was that year that Viacom bought out Chris Craft's share in UPN, giving Paramount 100% control of the network. It was also that year that Viacom bought another network. Ironically, it was the company which had given birth to Viacom a little over twenty years earlier--CBS. Paramount Television would become CBS Paramount International Television in 2004 and would eventually evolve into CBS Television Studios. It was also in 2000 that changing the name of the network from UPN to Paramount Network was proposed, complete with a new logo. The plan was dropped after protests from affiliates, who worried that changing the network's name could cost it viewers.

UPN's programming would change over the years. In 2001, after The WB dropped Buffy the Vampire Slayer, UPN picked it up where it ran two more years. It would also broadcast such shows as Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, and a new version of The Twilight Zone. In 2005 UPN ceased to be a Paramount company. That year Viacom was split into two companies. The new CBS Corporation would retain ownership of UPN. The new Viacom would own Paramount. This effectively ended any involvement Paramount had in the television network. From this time forward UPN would be a CBS company, not a Paramount company.

Not that UPN had much longer to live. Despite changes in its programming, UPN still lagged behind The WB in the ratings. It was then perhaps no surprise when, on January 24, 2006, CBS Corporation and Time Warner Inc. announced that they would close UPN and The WB respectively, with plans of creating a new network. The new network, christened The CW, would be operated jointly by CBS Corporation and Time Warner Inc. in a 50/50 deal. Paramount had ceased to be involved in a television network in 2005. With the demise of UPN, even their name would not be borne by a television network.

When Paramount lost UPN in 2005 it ended nearly sixty years of Paramount's involvement, on and off, in television networks. Early in television history Paramount had been involved with Dumount. It had also created its own network, the Paramount Television Network, which gave the world Time with Beany. In its eleven years UPN would produce several memorable shows, including Star Trek: Voyager, Nowhere Man, Veronica Mars, and Everybody Hates Chris. Although none of its networks were successes, Paramount did leave behind a legacy of programming that will be remembered for years to come.