Ziv Television and a brief history of syndicated television in America

Ziv Productions logo

Due to the rise in quality television and the sad, hopefully-not-irreversible decline of Hollywood films, any unbiased viewer of both would have to agree that television is entirely capable of producing great art. Much of the credit goes to cable (e.g. Breaking Bad and Mad Men) and online television (e.g. Homestar Runner and House of Cards). Then there’s syndicated television, which came into existence literally to provide television filler 65 years ago this month, when Ziv Television‘s first production aired.

Ziv advertisement 1955

For the most part syndicated television’s reputation for providing chaff is deserved. Syndicated programs have long been dominated by cheap anthology shows, court shows, game shows, variety shows, talk shows, celebrity gossip “news” shows, and other low-budget, low-brow, fare that at its best is enjoyable as a time-killers and guilty pleasures. Sometimes due to their peripheral nature, they’re amazingly watchable for all the wrong reasons — in many ways a television equivalent of the grindhouse cinema.

Back in the old days, neither the big four radio networks (ABC, CBS, Mutual, and NBC), nor the big three US television networks (CBS, DuMont, and NBC) offered a full day’s dose of programming. Then as now there were television stations not affiliated with any network — but even they rarely could produce enough programming to fill the day. In radio, syndicated programing, produced by independent companies had been the solution at least since the 1930s. The first American television company to produce syndicated programs was Ziv Television Programs, whose first program, Fireside Theatre, began airing back on 5 April, 1949.

Ziv had been founded in 1948 as a subsidiary of Frederick Ziv’s radio syndication company, which he launched in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1937. Ziv’s second television series, Easy Aces, was an adaptation of Goodman and Jane Ace‘s earlier radio program.



Ziv’s first unqualified success was The Cisco Kid, based on one of O. Henry‘s literary creations which had already proven its viability by spawning a Mutual radio drama, a one-shot Baily comic book, and a massive, 27-film franchise. The television program, which debuted on 5 September, 1950, was also noteworthy for being the first non-network program produced in color (although its star, RomanianAmerican Duncan Renaldo, was not).

In the first half of the 1950s, when Ziv’s popularity peaked, the company produced Boston Blackie, The Unexpected, I Led Three Lives, Your Favorite Story, Meet Corliss Archer, Mr. District Attorney, Waterfront, Highway Patrol, Science Fiction Theatre, and The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre.

Adventures of Superman

Syndication has a long history of picking up dropped network shows, including Hee Haw, The Lawrence Welk Show, and Baywatch, but occasionally a show begins in syndication before moving to a network. So it was with Adventures of Superman, which began in syndication in 1952 before being picked up by ABC, and Mister Ed, which began in syndication before being picked up by CBS.

In some ways syndicated television companies were victims of their own success. Ziv bought their own studio facility after having previously leased in 1955. Seeing how well they were doing with so little, almost overnight the networks responded by churning out their own cheaply-produced, non-primetime programming. Beginning with The West Side Story, Ziv began producing network shows as well. In 1960 Ziv was purchased by United Artists (UA) and merged with that company’s television company to form Ziv-United Artists. In 1962, UA phased out the Ziv name and reverted to United Artists Television.

In the late 1960s, hoping to encourage the production of more socially and culturally-relevant local programing, the FCC banned the airing of off-network re-runs in the “early fringe” hours of the early evening. For the most part, rather than produce anything of note, television stations increasingly turned to game shows and imported Canadian series like Dr. Simon Locke and Dusty’s Trail.

 
Star Trek the Next Generation Season 1
In the late 1980s, syndication sought out new life and boldly went where syndication hadn’t gone before with the comparatively expensive, hour-long and often-excellent Star Trek: The Next Generation. To this day, Star Trek: The Next Generation is the only syndicated television series to be nominated for the Emmy Award for “Best Dramatic Series” and, rather more impressively, two Hugo Awards, five Saturn Awards, and a Peabody Award.
After the success of ST:TNG in syndication, there was an upsurge in hour-long syndicated anthology and sci-fi programs like Friday the 13th: The Series, Freddy’s Nightmares, and War of the Worlds. Baywatch, foolishly cancelled by NBC after one season, went on to become of the most-watched and most-highly regarded (especially by Germans with discriminating tastes) television series in the world.

By the 1990s, the wee hours of late, late night/early morning television were populated in many American markets by shows seemingly designed to appeal and send off to slumberland insomniac geeks with a taste for camp, CGI and seemingly endless story arcs: Babylon 5, Earth: Final Conflict, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Poltergeist: The Legacy, and Xena: Warrior Princess.

I’m sure that I wasn’t the only college student who occasionally found themselves awake during the witching hour, and when confronted by an American-Canadian coproduction like Forever Knight or The Adventures of Sinbad didn’t ponder the possibility that they were the only person in the station’s range watching the show in question at that exact time.

It was also in the 1990s that another class of syndicated show arose, seemingly designed for the heterosexual fourteen-year-old boys weaned as young’uns on programs like Charlie’s AngelsShows like Baywatch NightsShe SpiesThunder in Paradise, and VIP were essentially PG versions of the films of direct-to-VHS auteurs like Andrew “Bullets, Bombs, and Babes” Sidaris.

While I had little interest in most syndicated sci-fi or T&A, the late 1990s/early 2000s crop of dating shows proved for some reason to be irresistible to me. Even in re-runs I will gladly gawk at any episode of Blind DateElimiDATE, orThe 5th Wheel.

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Returning for a moment to the story of Frederick Ziv; after selling his company, he spent two decades lecturing on broadcasting and advertising at the University of Cincinnati. He was awarded by them an

honorary doctorate in performing arts in 1985 before retiring. Given his role in television history, Ziv was perhaps surprisingly ambivalent about the state of it, remarking “I would like to see more mental stimulation on television, more programming for the betterment of mankind. But unfortunately, most of those programs don’t come up with high ratings. That’s why we get so much escapist entertainment. Look at shows like Truth or Consequences, Let’s Make a Deal or To Tell the Truth. They can hardly be accused of being over-stimulating to one’s intellect.” He died, aged 96, on 13 October, 2001.

Frederick Ziv
Frederick Ziv (right) — image: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research

If they ever devote a wing or corner of the Television Academy (fka Academy of Television Arts and Sciences) I’d like to nominate (for various reasons) the following for inclusion: America’s Black ForumThe AquanautsBattletoadsCheaters, A Current Affair, Bat MastersonDivorce Court, Donahue, Family Feud, The Geraldo Rivera Show, The Gong Show, Hee Haw Honeys, Highway Patrol, I Led Three LivesIn Search Of…, The Jenny Jones Show, The Jerry Springer Show, Lee Marvin presents Lawbreaker, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, The Merv Griffin Show, The Muppet Show, The People’s Court, The Porter Wagoner Show, The Price Is Right, Three’s a CrowdRipcord, The 700 Club, Soul Train, Star Search, The Starlost, Tales from the DarksideTic-Tac-Dough, The $25,000 Pyramid, and Wait Till Your Father Gets Home… and surely Frederick Ziv deserves to be honored with a bronze bust or plaque since he was the “father of syndicated television.”

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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