For years, Lucyfans have considered the premiere of I Love Lucy to have occurred on Monday, October 15, 1951… and while that was, indeed, the official debut of the program over the CBS Television Network, it was not necessarily the first occasion on which a home audience had a chance to view the Ricardos and the Mertzes.
What a person saw on television in those early days was dictated in good measure by the geographic location of one’s home. As We Love Lucy’s Jim Staffer of Anderson, Indiana, recently called to our attention, I Love Lucy was broadcast over station WTTV in Bloomington, Indiana, on Saturday evening, October 13 – two days before the CBS kick-off!
Bloomington, the home of Indiana University, was unique in those days as the smallest city in the world with a television station. (WTTV, then broadcasting over Channel 10, had “signed on” in November, 1949, with less than 500 receivers in the area.) The station’s practice of airing certain shows out of their network time periods was apparently not all that unusual.
“Letting a station air a show before the official network feed is unheard-of today,” says CBS’ Tom Clark, director of affiliate payments. “But in those early days it happened quite often. There were so few stations on the air, and the ones that were operational were not all connected by the coaxial cable or microwave relay. ‘Live’ shows had to be carried live, or be broadcast on a delayed basis by means of a kinescope transcription, but prints of film programs like Lucy could be crated up and shipped to stations in advance of the network airing. The networks felt lucky just to get the shows on the air at all.”
There were so few stations in operation in 1951 that in many instances the networks shared affiliates. That is – some local stations carried the programs of two or more networks, and often rearranged the network schedules accordingly. WTTV, for example, carried I Love Lucy Saturday at 7-7:30PM, leading into an evening that also included ABC’s Stu Erwin Show and NBC’s Your Show of Shows. The station was officially listed as an NBC affiliate, with WFBM-TV, some thirty miles north in Indianapolis, serving as the primary CBS affiliate in central Indiana.
WFBM-TV did carry I Love Lucy in the official Monday time period, when WTTV aired an “advance” episode of CBS’ Amos ‘n’ Andy – normally seen on the network on Thursday night. We have no way of knowing which (or how many) other stations may have also carried Lucy early.
Obviously time periods were not as important to networks and sponsors as audience size. According to CBS’ records, that first episode of I Love Lucy, “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub,” was carried (in whatever time slot) by stations in 44 cities. There were 11.7 million homes equipped with television in those areas, and Lucy was seen in over 4.5 million of them. Right from the outset, CBS knew it had a hit!
Following is a photocopy of the cover and inside page to TV NEWS (Volume 2, #14, October 12, 1951), an Indianapolis-based publication:
Under "On the Cover" the editor writes:Months ago we predicted that Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, would likely appear in a romantic husband-and-wife program come this fall. On Saturday, Oct. 13, at 7:00PM, I Love Lucy will make its premiere performance via WTTV, and on Monday, Oct. 15, at 8:00PM, this top-rated program makes its bow to WFBM-TV audiences. Lucille is Lucy -- You'll love Lucy!"
Inside were the TV listings for both Bloomington and Indianapolis...
The Saturday night listing for WTTV's "I Love Lucy" says:
"See WFBM's Monday program for details."
The Monday night listing for WFBM-TV reads as follows:
I LOVE LUCY (CABLE FILM)
Lucille Ball plays Lucy and Desi Arnaz plays the husband (which he is in real life as well). In keeping with the high spirits of the occasion tonight, Lucy and Desi have a video party that is in honor of their neighbors, Ethel and Fred, who are celebrating their anniversary. The men decide the fights would be a good place to celebrate, but the wives hold out for a nightclub. The verbal sparring that ensues precipitates an eventful evening of unexpected antics and laughs. William Frawley plays the neighbor Fred, and Vivian Vance is cast as Ethel. Incidentally, the actual premiere of this telecast will have a striking resemblance to a Hollywood opening night, with many famous stars in the Desilu Playhouse where the show is filmed.
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Original materials © 2001 Lucyfan Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.
"I Love Lucy" is copyrighted by and a registered trademark of CBS Worldwide, Inc.
Images of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz used with permission of Desilu, too, LLC.
Licensing by Unforgettable Licensing, Northbrook, Illinois.