When TV History Goes Into Reruns
Farewell, "Seinfeld": When TV History Goes Into Reruns
By: Kyle Pope | The Wall Street Journal - Thursday, May 7, 1998

After nine years, the nation's most popular television comedy is going off the air. Shot in Hollywood but set in New York, the show features a goofy star, a couple of wacky neighbors and not much you could call a plot line. The network is seen to be in trouble, and critics are saying television will never be the same again.

No, not "Seinfeld." We're talking about "I Love Lucy."

As the hype builds for next week's "Seinfeld" finale, it's worth remembering that we have been there before, with "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers," "Dallas," "The Fugitive" and "Mary Tyler Moore." Sentimental series finales are as much a part of television as laugh tracks and police chases.

Hollywood, too, always sings the same old swan song; If the demise of a show isn't a body-blow to CBS, NBC or ABC, it's the end of some golden age of television. "We thought the world had ended," Michael Dann, CBS's programming chief in Lucy's final years. "It's very much like what we are hearing today."

No show more closely tracks the phenomenon of the last "Seinfeld" than the end of "I Love Lucy," another 9 o'clock Eastern time comedy hit that went off the air at the peak of its rating power.

Desi Arnaz's "Lucy, I'm home!" was as resonant in its time as Kramer's skidding entrance into Jerry's apartment, and his "You've got some 'splaining to do!" was as prevalent then as "Yada, yada, yada" is today.

"Both of these shows are built around things that happen in everyday like," says Thomas Watson, a onetime publicist for Lucille Ball now working for media buyer Western International Media. "It's about finding humor in everyday situations."

More than that, "I Love Lucy" laid the foundation for the business model that would later turn "Seinfeld" into a billion-dollar TV powerhouse.

Lucy's original sponsor, Philip Morris cigarettes, paid Lucy and Desi $30,000 a week, which was then a small fortune. Five years later, they were making $350,000 per episode. Taking inflation into account, that amount -- almost to the dollar -- to the $1 million an episode Jerry Seinfeld was paid this season by NBC.

And lest anyone think that the merchandising and syndication success of "Seinfeld" is a new thing, "Lucy" got there first, too. Not only did Desi Arnaz invent the three-camera technique now standard for sitcoms, but his show was among the first to be show on high-quality film, preserving it for reruns even as the live shows of the day lived on only in kinescope or disappeared into the mist. As a result, "Lucy" still ranks as the most watched TV show ever, with reruns broadcast today on cable's Nick at Nite.

"Lucy also was a pioneer in television merchandising, with products ranging from Lucy blouses and Desi smoking jackets, to full-fledged living-room and bedroom sets patterned after the show's set, complete with "Lucy" linoleum.

"In terms of the magnitude of the show, Lucy is definitely Seinfeld's predecessor," says Ric Wyman, a writer in Elderon, Wis., and the foremost collector of Lucy memorabilia. Mr. Wyman's collection -- some of which is housed in the Lucy-Desi Museum in Jamestown, NY -- includes the last contract Miss Ball signed before she dies in 1989, along with Little Ricky yarn and Belgian cigar bands embossed with Lucy's name. Indeed old collectibles and new T-shirts (one with Lucy's Vitameatavegamin drink on it) are now sold on the Internet; there are at least a dozen We sites devoted to things Lucy.

The beginning of the end for "I Love Lucy" came in 1957, when Mr. Arnaz decided that filming a weekly half-hour show before a live audience was simply too grueling for the two stars. "We're a little brain-weary, you know," Miss Ball told reporters at the time. "How do you make people understand that?"

Fans were crushed. "Lucy" at the time was seen each week in about 10 million homes -- astonishing in a country where only 15 million households had television sets.

More people watched "Lucy" on the occasion of the Ricados' TV son Ricky's birth than watched the inauguration of President Eisenhower or the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. In 1952, when presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson broke into the show with a five-minute campaign ad, hate mail poured forth, says Lucy historian Bart Andrews. "I love Lucy," one woman wrote Mr. Stevenson. "I like Ike. Drop dead."

To calm the fans, CBS agreed to continue the show in a different format. Beginning in 1957, the comedy ran as "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour," a series of one-hour specials like Milton Berl and Maurice Chevalier and situations that too the Ricardos away from their Upper East Side apartment.

While these shows remained hits, work on the set was beginning to unravel. The two stars by this time knew their real-life marriage was breaking up and were struggling to keep the show on the air. In March 1960, Miss Ball filed for divorce, and the show that aired a month later was the last regular "Lucy" ever.

Bob Schiller, a writer on that last episode, says that country became fixated on what was happening on the set.

There was all kinds of speculation," says Mr. Schiller. "It was tough. It was not a cause for celebration. It was a cause for reflection and sadness."

For viewers, the new of Hollywood was a double whammy. Not only was their favorite program going off the air, but the TV couple that had personified zany domestic bliss was history, too.

"To some people, this was the most important thing in their lives," Mr. Dann remembers. "The nation suffered a loss."

In the end, CBS did just fine, continuing its rule for most of the next decade, powered by hits like "Gunsmoke." When the James Arness Western left the air in 1975, the experts said, TV would never be the same again.

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