‘I Love Lucy’: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz Invented the Rerun, Here’s How

by Matthew Wilson

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz couldn’t have been more different than their “I Love Lucy” characters. While they played a bumbling sitcom couple, the two were brilliant strategists and innovators in real life. Both Ball and Arnaz actually changed the face of television itself when they invented the rerun.

Wait, what? It seems like such a staple and no-brainer these days. But before “I Love Lucy,” networks didn’t replay any of their programmings. It was a one-and-done kind of thing. And if audiences’ missed an episode, then that episode was gone off into the abyss, never to be seen again.

“I Love Lucy” was the first of its kind in many ways. At the time, networks broadcasted their TV shows live on the East Coast. (Think “Saturday Night Live” for instance). They recorded the episodes on kinescopes to play for audiences on the West Coast later in the day. But kinescopes often produced horrible quality and were short-lived recordings. It involved positioning a camera at a TV set to record an episode as it broadcast on the East Coast.

Both Ball and Arnaz wanted a uniform, high quality for “I Love Lucy” across the country. They also wanted the show to star an interracial couple and resisted CBS’s attempt to make Arnaz’s character white. As such, the couple started their own company Desilu Productions. Ball and Arnaz struck a deal with CBS where they agreed to film the show and sell it out to the network. As a result, they would take all the risk on “I Love Lucy” but retain the rights and film of the show.

‘I Love Lucy’ Becomes a Hit

Unlike many shows, Ball and Arnaz filmed “I Love Lucy” on the West Coast as well. The show was shot on 35mm film, a much more permanent and higher quality recording than the kinescopes. As a result, the couple had a product they could sell back to CBS and other networks.

To make this a reality, both actors and producers took pay cuts on their initial salaries, according to The Take. But they ended up making a fortune in the long run. “I Love Lucy” became a hit during its initial run, but it became a classic and American staple thanks to syndication. Networks quickly realized that if they recorded on film then they could replay their shows in a similar fashion. It wasn’t long before other shows followed in “I Love Lucy” example.

Reruns and the syndication system was created.