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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

I Love Lucy! The rise of America's most-watched TV show

Apr 28, 2024 11:46AM ● By Randal C. Hill
I Love Lucy

In four of its six seasons, “I Love Lucy” was the most-watched television show in America.

In four of its six seasons, “I Love Lucy” was the most-watched television show in America. 

CBS had reservations about the show’s concept initially, particularly the interracial marriage of former B-movie actress Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, a foreigner from Cuba. But the couple, who were married in real life, argued that audiences wouldn’t care. 

To prove their point, in 1950, Ball and Arnaz created a vaudeville-style act when Arnaz’s well-received rhumba band, the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, went on tour. Audiences were delightfully surprised and responded with uproarious laughter to Ball’s comedic interruptions during Arnaz’s performances, complete with her carrying a cello onstage, clamoring for an audition with his band.

Convinced by the audience’s reaction, CBS eventually gave the green light, leading to the development of the first sitcom to feature an interracial couple on television.

When Arnaz proposed using a three-camera setup to film “I Love Lucy,” CBS balked again due to the cost. However, Arnaz and Ball offered them a deal: they would accept a significant pay cut if their company, Desilu Productions, could retain ownership of the filmed episodes. 

CBS agreed, a decision that would later pay dividends when the high-quality film made syndication of reruns extremely profitable.

“I Love Lucy” was also the first TV show to feature a pregnant woman on TV. She was expecting her son Desi Jr. at the time. However, CBS didn’t allow the word “pregnant” to be spoken on television, so the show used “expecting” instead, or as Arnaz, with his distinctive Cuban accent, charmingly pronounced it, “spectin’.”

On the show, the couple’s best friends and landlords were Fred and Ethel Mertz. William Frawley, an ex-vaudevillian with a history of alcoholism, was cast as Fred with the stipulation that he would forfeit his job if he was ever absent on the set due to his drinking. Fortunately, he never disappointed.

Vivian Vance, who was cast as Ethel Mertz, agreed to specific terms in her contract that would emphasize her character’s contrast with Lucy. Vance, a former model who was only five years older than Ball and significantly younger than her on-screen husband William Frawley, consented to wear frumpy clothing and maintain a weight at least 20 pounds heavier than Ball to appear older. Despite her professional commitment, Vance was reportedly displeased with these conditions. 

“I Love Lucy” achieved legendary status. Polls in 2012 by both ABC News and People magazine named “I Love Lucy” the Best TV Show of All Time. Its success was attributed to several pioneering aspects of the production: innovative filming techniques, Ball’s flair for physical comedy, Arnaz’s astute business strategies and quality writing by Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. 

The series was also the first scripted show shot on 35mm film, utilized a three-camera setup with a live audience, and was among the earliest to feature an ensemble cast.

During its illustrious run from 1951-1957, “I Love Lucy” garnered five Emmy Awards. Although Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960, they remained close, and Arnaz famously remarked, “‘I Love Lucy’ was never just a title,” highlighting the personal connection they both retained to the show.