In June 1990, the Warner Bros. logo was unveiled on the water tower
Stage 16, with 32,130 square feet of space, is the largest sounstage in North America
Scenic painter Andrew Pike in his workshop
Jennifer Hudson and the crew of The Jennifer Hudson Show during their pre-show "spirit tunnel" ritual
Abbott Elementary's Tyler James Williams
Channing Dungey, chairman and CEO, Warner Bros. Television Group
The Michigan J. Frog vehicle used to promote The WB shows
You never get over the idea that it's so cool to work here." Here is the Warner Bros. Lot, and the enthusiast is no less than Channing Dungey, Chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Television Group.
In a slightly different vernacular, you could imagine any of the four Warner brothers — Albert, Sam, Harry or Jack L. — expressing that same thought 100 years ago. The sibs incorporated their studio in 1923, and by 1929 they were settled into a newly built facility in Burbank, California. Today that location remains the company home, and its iconic water tower — emblazoned with sundry versions of the Warner Bros. logo over the years — still stands proud. No longer needed to supply water in case of fire, the 133-foot structure is one of the industry's most recognizable landmarks.
No surprise, Dungey is a fan. "I probably have seventeen different photos of the water tower on my phone. Whenever I look up and a beautiful sky is framing it — maybe with a sunset — I always take a picture."
This year Warner Bros. marks 100 years in the picture business. In its first decade, it released the world's first talkie (The Jazz Singer, 1927), and with each subsequent decade it cemented its reputation as the maker of America's finest films. (A very short list includes Casablanca, My Fair Lady, The Searchers, Giant, The Exorcist, Dirty Harry, All the President's Men, Batman, Goodfellas, The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, among many, many more.)
But along the way, Warner Bros. also became a television studio. Since entering that emerging medium in 1955, Warner Bros. has created more than 2,400 series, including some of the most successful shows of all time.
Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker, was the division's first hit, a one-hour Western that debuted on Warner Bros. Presents, ABC's first "wheel series" in which two or more programs are rotated in the same time slot. Unlike the other two shows in the wheel — Casablanca and Kings Row — Cheyenne was based on an original idea and not on one of the studio's acclaimed films. (Even back then, existing IP was almost irresistible to show creators.)
In 1957, James Garner arrived in Maverick, the only show to earn the short-lived Emmy for Best Western Series. Westerns were riding high in the '50s, and so was comedy. But the bold young studio chose to make its name in drama, sticking with Westerns (Lawman, Colt .45, Bronco) and moving into crime and detective shows (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Surfside 6).
The road from those early dramas to today — when the Warner Bros. name is synonymous with some of the best comedies in television history, such as Friends and Abbott Elementary — was occasionally rocky. The studio produced its first sitcom in 1962: Room for One More starred Andrew Duggan and Peggy McCay as parents who decide to add two adopted children to their family.
Though based on a Warner Bros. movie starring Cary Grant and Betsy Drake, the series lasted only one season. But 1962 had a greater significance for the TV division: it stopped producing shows exclusively for ABC and made its first for other outlets. That was the start of a formidable tradition, as Warner Bros. would become the leading supplier of shows to the networks over the coming years.
In the broadcast-network heyday of the 1970s, the studio expanded beyond half-hour comedies and hourlong dramas into the newfangled miniseries. In 1976, its deal with producer David L. Wolper led to 1977's twelve-hour Roots — a winner of nine Emmys — and its 1979 sequel, Roots: The Next Generations.
After that came even more blockbuster minis: The Thorn Birds and North & South. Meanwhile, series such as Wonder Woman (starring Lynda Carter, with her magic belt, bracelets and golden lasso) and The Dukes of Hazzard (Tom Wopat, John Schneider, Catherine Bach and a '69 Dodge Charger) became pop-culture phenoms.
The '90s brought long-running landmarks ER (1994–2009, starring George Clooney et al.) and, of course, Friends. The Friends era (ten seasons long and forever in fans' hearts) can be traced to one of the studio's most prescient deals: a 1994 exclusive for Warner Bros. with writer-producers Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane.
In 2000, super-producer Chuck Lorre signed with the studio. His deal still exists today and is responsible for Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Mom, among other huge hits.
The studio's television legacy is visible to anyone lucky enough to walk the lot. Plaques affixed to the soundstages identify key productions that have come to life in those spaces, reminding everyone — from tour guests to top execs — of the history that was made there.
"We have always prided ourselves on producing groundbreaking series," Dungey says, "and the shows we create become part of our rich library of intellectual property. That goes all the way back to Alice [1976–85, starring Linda Lavin], The West Wing [1996–2006, starring Martin Sheen et al.] and to current shows like Abbott Elementary, Ted Lasso and Shrinking.
"We are always trying to tell innovative stories in fresh ways, and we love it when a story resonates with audiences in such a way that it becomes a cultural touchstone."
While the studio doesn't necessarily set out to produce a landmark series, it has always been "wanting to collaborate with incredibly talented writers," Dungey says, "and people who have something [significant] to say. Look at what we've accomplished with Greg Berlanti, Chuck Lorre, J.J. Abrams, Mindy Kaling. ..."
Even Dungey can't recite all the prestigious showrunners who've graced the lot. "The list of the people who've had great success working with Warner Bros. goes on and on," she says.
A celebration of stories and talent is at the heart of the studio's year-long centenary campaign that kicked off in April on the company's various platforms — and IRL. Prominent among the special programming is 100 Years of Warner Bros., a four-part documentary from Emmy- and Oscar-nominated producer-director Leslie Iwerks; all parts are streaming on Max.
At the same time, Dungey says, ongoing anniversary events are aimed at "connecting fans to the Warner Bros. TV brands, franchises and characters." Also, complete collections of some beloved Warner Bros. series are being made available on home entertainment for the first time.
With the relaunch of Max now complete, Dungey notes that Warner Bros. Television takes pride in being the prime supplier to the streaming platform. "But we meaningfully sell everywhere in town," she adds, "and we have great relationships with every platform, be it a streaming service or broadcast network." And while streaming plays a significant role in the company's creative and business plans, Dungey remains committed to creating strong broadcast-network content.
"Every time people say you can't make another hit broadcast show, we keep proving them wrong," she says. "It's part of the industry I grew up in and still strongly believe in.
"When I started in television in 2004, there was broadcast and a little bit of basic cable. In 2023, the landscape is so much richer and more diverse, but the one thing that hasn't changed is that it all comes down to the great story. I want us to keep telling fantastic stories that hopefully have cultural impact."
And that brings her full circle to her beloved home away from home. "When I drive onto the lot in the morning," Dungey says, "I'm reminded how wonderful it is to be able to do what we do, surrounded by people who are making the shows. The idea that around the corner could be the next creative person I will collaborate with is exciting and inspiring."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #9, 2023.