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Desi Arnaz, TV Innovator

Published: 12/2/2012
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Desi Arnaz (Wikimedia Commons/General Artists Corporation)

When Desi Arnaz came to the U.S., a 16-year-old boy fleeing Cuba with his family, television was just a glimmer in the public's eye. Fourteen years later, Arnaz would become one of TV's top innovators, pushing its boundaries and helping define the still-new medium. Twenty-seven years after Arnaz's death at the age of 69, we're showcasing three of the ways he helped influence television.

1. Interracial relationships. When I Love Lucy premiered in 1951, the American public wasn't accustomed to seeing much diversity on TV – and certainly not in the form of an interracial or interethnic relationship. Executives wished Lucille Ball would choose a different TV husband – one who looked a bit more like her. But Ball and Arnaz were determined to star in the show together (it was a great way for the busy showbiz couple to get to spend more time together), and they embarked on a vaudeville tour prior to the show's launch in order to get the public used to seeing the redheaded woman with the Latino man. It worked, and "Lucy and Ricky" became TV's first interethnic couple.

2. Pregnancy on TV. With shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant among today’s TV hits, it's hard to remember a time when pregnancy wasn't allowed on television. But in 1953, when Lucille Ball was pregnant with Desi Arnaz Jr., network heads agreed that it was inappropriate to show a pregnant woman on TV – or even to utter the word "pregnant" on the small screen. Arnaz was determined to have Ball's pregnancy written into the show's events, and he pushed for a change in standards, even going to a variety of religious leaders and gaining their agreement that a pregnancy on TV would be acceptable. He finally won the battle and Ball appeared on the show throughout her pregnancy (though execs were more rigid on the wording issue, and Arnaz used the word "expecting" instead).

3. The rerun. Not all of Arnaz's innovations had to do with the content of I Love Lucy. In fact, Arnaz can also be credited with inventing the rerun. In the early 1950s, shows like I Love Lucy were filmed and broadcast live on the east coast, then rebroadcast in the rest of the U.S. via kinescope. The kinescope provided an inferior image, and it degraded each time it was replayed, allowing for only a few ephemeral broadcasts. Arnaz had the idea to film I Love Lucy using multiple film cameras, adjacent sets, and a live audience. It was a brand-new setup at the time and network executives were, predictably, unsure about it – but not only did it work; it became the standard for filming TV shows that continues to this day. It allowed for higher-quality broadcasts in the rest of the country, and it allowed each episode to be preserved long beyond the initial airing, too. Thanks to Arnaz's innovation, we're able to enjoy I Love Lucy reruns (along with those of so many other TV shows) decades after the show aired… and we're grateful for that.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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