Tuesday's release of the "Studio One Anthology" won't be the biggest TV DVD of the year, but it's arguably the most important.
The six-disc set presents 17 episodes of the Emmy-winning "Studio One," which ran on CBS from 1948 to 1958 and has been hailed as one of the most innovative and prestigious shows in TV history. Because the series' dramatic presentations were done live, most of the set's contents are being seen for the first time since their original broadcasts.
The $100 set, a cooperative project of Koch Vision and the Archive of American Television, is filled with landmarks. They include "Twelve Angry Men," the famous courtroom drama that was written for "Studio One" and later made into an Oscar-nominated film, and one of the earliest televised operas, Gian-Carlo Menotti's "The Medium." Viewers who tuned in each week were just as likely to see an original production, such as Gore Vidal's gothic "Dark Possession," or an adaptation such as "1984," which aired in 1953, five years after George Orwell's novel came out.
Most fascinating is seeing work by artists at the dawn of their careers. Rod Serling contributed two teleplays several years before he created "The Twilight Zone." Jack Lemmon made his TV debut in the Jazz Age satire "June Moon" in 1949. That same year, Yul Brynner directed "The Storm" nearly a decade before he became famous as an actor in "The King and I."
The episodes exist today on DVD thanks to kinescopes -- films shot of a TV monitor during the live broadcast for later airings on the West Coast. The resulting audio-video quality is below what modern viewers are used to, but typical for the era.
"The challenge is to clean the episodes up as much as possible while still doing it in a way that allows the set to be issued at a fair price," explained Michael Rosenberg, president of Koch. "Some were in better shape than others."
The show's creativity never falters, though.
"The 'Studio One' approach was more of a visual approach than anything that had been done before that," said Karen Herman, director of the archive. "Before that, it was more like radio for television."
Camera angles and dynamic direction gave energy to what otherwise would have been static televised plays. For example, in "Twelve Angry Men," directed in 1954 by Franklin Schaffner, one character backs his head up to the camera, completely blocking the view, as he yells at his fellow jurors. His unseen rage becomes that much more effective.
For the live broadcast, the actors and crew would rehearse for seven days, said actor Jack Klugman, whose three "Studio One" episodes are not on the set. (He did go on to star in the 1957 film of "Twelve Angry Men.") The set does capture the fallout of performing without a safety net: A prop malfunctions in a key scene of "Twelve Angry Men." Offstage clattering is heard. Actors flub a line. But Klugman said he misses live TV drama.
"I just loved it," he said last week by phone. "It had the feeling of theater and yet the precision of movies."
Anecdotes such as Klugman's pepper the set in the form of vintage interviews conducted by the Paley Center for Media and the Archive of American Television.
"Our hope is that people will see these snippets and want to know more about the era, know more about how live television was done and then come to our website [EmmyTVLegends.org] and watch the full interviews with the people that put these things on," Herman said.
Whether Koch does other "Studio One" anthologies depends on how well this first set sells, Rosenberg said. Meanwhile, it is planning a February release of "What Makes Sammy Run?" that aired in 1959 on NBC's "Sunday Showcase," and, in April or May, a boxed set of the best of Ernie Kovacs. They're part of a continuing series on classic TV, done in conjunction with the archive, that includes documentation, bonus material and restoration.
"The idea," Rosenberg said, "is to resurrect these wonderful programs" for people who remember them and for later generations to discover.
Randy.Salas@startribune.com • 612-673-4542