Fireside Theatre was the first successful filmed series on American network television. In an era when live television dominated network schedules, the series demonstrated that filmed programming could be successful and from the fall of 1949 to the spring of 1955, it was one of the ten most watched programs in the United States. Following The Milton Berle Show on Tuesday nights on NBC, Fireside was an anthology drama that presented a different half-hour story each week. In 1955, the series was changed to Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre, and though it soon became a distinctly different series under the title, Jane Wyman Theater (1955-58), the title usually refers to the entire run of the series.
For the first two years of network series television (1947-49), all television shows were broadcast live from New York and many were anthology dramas, presenting weekly hour-long plays. Kraft Television Theatre, Studio One, and Philco Television Playhouse are outstanding examples of the form that dominated network schedules through the early 1950s. Videotape would not be available until 1956, and film was initially thought to be too expensive for weekly television production. For television critics working during the early years of the medium, the hour-long anthology dramas, with their adaptations of literary classics, serious dramas, and social relevance, represented the best of television. The worst was cheap, half-hour, Hollywood telefilms that did not, in their view, aspire to so-called serious drama or social relevance. Fireside Theatre fit this latter category.
The television series most often cited as the innovator in filmed programming is I Love Lucy (which was produced in Hollywood). However, when I Love Lucy premiered on CBS in 1951, Fireside Theatre had already been on the air for two years. To the show's sponsor and owner, Procter & Gamble, film offered several distinct advantages over live production. It made possible the creation of error-proof commercials. It allowed for closer control of content and costs. It created opportunities for added profits from syndication when programs were sold for repeated airing. And it enabled cost-effective distribution to the West Coast, not yet hooked into the coaxial cable network that linked East Coast and Midwest stations.
Producer/director/writer/host Frank Wisbar is often considered the reason for Fireside Theatre's success. Frank Wisbar Productions was the sole production company from 1951-55 and for the show's first several seasons, Wisbar produced and directed most episodes, and even served as host in the 1952-53 season. To control costs, he wrote many episodes himself and used public domain and free-lance stories. Writers such as Rod Serling and Budd Schulberg saw their stories produced and then little-known and second-string movie actors such as Hugh O'Brian, Rita Moreno, and Jane Wyatt appeared on the series.
When Fireside Theatre premiered in April 1949, it began a three-month experimental period. Some of the 15-minute episodes were live and some were filmed. Genres were mixed, and included comedies, musicals, mysteries, and dramas. A half-hour format that presented two 15-minute filmed stories per episode was chosen for the 1949-50 season. These early episodes were often mysteries, reflecting Wisbar's background in horror and mystery movie making. (When these episodes were first shown in syndication they were called Strange Adventure.) Later seasons presented half-hour dramas and while the stories continued to vary in genre (Westerns, comedies, melodramas, mysteries), family remained the central theme.
From 1953-55 film actor Gene Raymond served as host and by the end of the 1954-55 season, as ratings declined, Fireside Theatre was completely overhauled--it became a different series. The title and theme music changed. But most significantly, film star Jane Wyman became host and producer. Wyman chose the scripts and acted in many of the episodes and her company, Lewman Productions, produced the series. It was now Wyman's show which would remain on NBC until 1958.
Fireside Theatre established its place in the history of television by being the first successful filmed network series in the era of live broadcasting. It was also the first successful filmed anthology series in an era of prestigious live anthology dramas. Scorned by critics, it was, for most of its seven seasons, a top-ten show on American television.
Frank Wisbar (1952-1953)
Gene Raymond (1953-1955)
Jane Wyman (1955-1958)
April 1949-June 1957 Tuesday 9:00-9:30
September 1957-May 1958 Thursday 10:30-11:00
Lafferty, William. "'No Attempt at Artiness, Profundity, or Significance': Fireside Theatre and the Rise of Filmed Television Programming." Cinema Journal (Urbana, Illinois), 1987.