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Time Machine: Words of Wisdom from a TV Revolutionary

Pat Weaver, Former President of NBC

This is a very unusual Q&A because the interviewee died at age 93 in 2002. In April, 1987, I entered a classroom in Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles to begin a 10-week lecture course called “Home Communication and Entertainment in the 20th Century.”

It was taught by media visionary, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, former president of NBC and the man who created both the TODAY and Tonight Shows still on the network today.

Besides being a charming, friendly, accessible man, Weaver really understood television and had beliefs that hold true to this day. Sadly, many current industry executives might find his ideas idealist and economically unsound. But his visionary instincts have stood the test of time and we felt his words should be revisited.

And, by the way, for the inquiring minds among you. Pat Weaver was the father of actress Sigourney Weaver. She came to sit in on her father’s class at UCLA.

Sigourney Weaver with her father Pat Weaver – 1989

During those ten extraordinary weeks, I learned much about how television should be. This “interview” comes from Weaver’s own words in that class.

Frank Beacham: Mr. Weaver, you were the former chairman and president of NBC when television came of age in the 1950s. You created the TODAY Show and Tonight Show. Plus, you almost single-handedly created the program genres that dominate network schedules to this day. How did this all happen?

Pat Weaver: I developed the magazine format for advertisers — a concept that shifted control of early television programming from the sponsors to the networks. When I joined NBC in 1949, radio was the dominant mass medium and TV was still considered a luxury in most American homes.

Frank Beacham: So when you took over NBC, the television business was a blank slate?

Pat Weaver: Yes, very much so. As it had been the practice in network radio, early TV programming was produced and controlled by advertisers. Most people don’t realize that the networks were really just facilities and had nothing to do with programming at the time. I came up with the idea that NBC should produce its own programs and then sell commercial time in segments to multiple advertisers.

Frank Beacham: What inspired you do this?

Weaver in his office

Pat Weaver: As a radio veteran who had previously worn the hats of writer, producer, director, announcer and reporter, I felt comfortable guiding NBC into the television era. Along the way, I introduced American TV audiences to Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Fred Allen and Jimmy Durante.

I also created the concept of the television spectacular, or ‘special’ as it was later called. I introduced Producer’s Showcase, a program vehicle to introduce new talent to American audiences. Among the live broadcasts under my watch were a production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin, and Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera commissioned for television.

I also introduced the still-running Meet the Press in news…it began on radio…and Your Show of Shows, an entertainment program starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. By the way, the writing staff on that show included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Frank Beacham: For all your achievements, I understand that you now view your past work at NBC as a disappointment. Why is that?

Pat Weaver: Television had an obligation to expand the minds of its audience. I’ll admit I was a showman and not a highbrow, but I saw television’s public service obligation as one to educate and entertain with a high level of artistry. For this, I was seen as a visionary who was sometimes too far ahead of his broadcasting colleagues.

Pat Weaver with Dave Garroway, host of the TODAY show.

Frank Beacham: How were you too far ahead?

Pat Weaver: Take, for example, the TODAY Show, the morning broadcast that I created with host Dave Garroway in 1952 to lure listeners away from morning radio. The original idea was to introduce the audience to the best and brightest of American thinkers.

Writers, artists, scientists and the country’s intelligentsia would use the leisurely morning time slot to expose the emerging television audience to new, cutting-edge ideas.

Originally, the Tonight Show, which was first titled Broadway Open House, was created to expose Americans to the finest talent in the nation’s artistic capital, New York City. I wanted to take live cameras into Broadway theatres, opera houses, dance halls and nightclubs to introduce NBC’s audiences to performers and creative works that were new and undiscovered.

Frank Beacham: You wanted NBC’s morning and late night programming to expose the common man to the best in American arts and culture?

Pat Weaver with Muggs, the monkey mascot on the TODAY Show

Pat Weaver: Yes, but it was very disappointing the way things turned out. Occasionally, there are good things on, but there’s no consistent arts programming. The TODAY show has become a series of quick segments to hawk books, movies and new products. Tonight is little more than a vehicle for topical comedy. I have disdain today for these shows.

Frank Beacham: In 1954, you were described by New Yorker magazine as television’s “most unrelenting thinker and most vocal theorist.” These are not words we hear about television executives anymore.

Pat Weaver: I made enemies among the corporate bean counters. After eight years at NBC, I was forced to relinquish control to Robert Sarnoff, the son of Gen. David Sarnoff. By the way, my nickname for him was ‘General Fangs.’ I left the network in 1956.

Frank Beacham: What did you do after leaving NBC?

Pat Weaver: In the early 1960s, I became a pay television executive heading STV (Subscription Television) in Los Angeles. The venture was to offer movies and arts programming on a subscription basis. But it failed. It was not because audiences didn’t want it, but because media competitors used the courts and political system to block it.

To this day, I believe broadcasters are obligated to serve the public interest. But too many executives now talk of ‘the competitive realities of the marketplace.’ In reality, I think they are blinded by greed.

Frank Beacham: Thank you, Mr. Weaver.

Frank Beacham
Broadcast Beat