How to Live on TV

(from Newsweek, May 27, 1957)
Frantic scrabbling for new material and hectic shifting of format have been the rule for American TV for many, drawn-out months. Despite the desperate attempts of networks and individual show packagers, the season of 1956-57 would go into the records “as the most cancellation-happy year in the medium’s history,” according to Variety. Boxscore to date: 55 shows canceled or approximately 45 per cent of all network programming – including such seemingly indestructible veterans as Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar.

Standing firm in the midst of all alarms and excursions was the 30-minute cops-and-robbers series, “Dragnet.” In five seasons on television it had done little to change its appearance, boasted two happy sponsors, approximately 35 million remarkably faithful fans, and a supercharged producer, director, and leading man, Jack Webb, who was quite confident of a boundless future.


The Secret:
What was the secret of “Dragnet’s” durability? “I work hard but not as hard as they used to say,” said Webb. “When we began on TV I put in a sixteen- to eighteen-hour day and spent as much as five days on a single half-hour show. Now we put out a show in two days and I’ve cut my day down to 12 hours. Everyone works a 12-hour day in TV.”

Besides energy, Webb uses his shrewd ear. “The public dictates and you listen to them. You give them, not approximately, but exactly what they want.”

Over the years, the public’s dictates to “Dragnet” have varied little. “The audience wanted less underplaying, so the acting has gotten more exuberant,” Webb said. “They wanted the music toned down, so we lowered the sound level. They wanted humor; we added it. Sergeant Friday’s romance lasted only about eight or ten weeks, and there are no plans to renew it.” In Webb’s view, monotony is a definite advantage: “For a regular half-hour show, stylization and a consistent format are desperately needed. Once you get them they should be treasured. In 30 minutes you can’t tell a real story. You’re lucky if you can stumble through a vignette.”
To the Suburbs:
A year ago, Webb panicked briefly at the thought that he might be running out of suitable vignettes after having culled the files of the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 300 radio and TV scripts. He asked for official help and was told to branch out into the outlying divisions of Los Angeles’ sprawling suburbs and enlist the help of retired as well as active police officers. After a half-dozen hearty dinners with ex-cops and a little digging in police division offices from Venice to the San Fernando Valley, he had enough ideas for two more years’ worth of shows.

“I used to think every year was the end,” Webb admitted. “Now I’m convinced we can go on indefinitely, it that’s what the public wants.”

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