64 Years Ago, ‘Today Show’ Ushered In a New Era of TV

If you watch TV in the morning, enjoy the personalities and news as you prepare for the day ahead, but treat the program as background noise, you are one of many millions of people who start your day as Pat Weaver hoped. When the “Today Show” launched 64 years ago last weekend, these were some of its founding goals.

Weaver was a television executive who got his start in radio and later worked at an advertising agency. He took this prior experience and applied it to TV. In just seven years at NBC (1949-1956), Weaver left a huge mark as one of the biggest innovators in television programming, developing and championing programs “Today Show,” “Tonight Show,” “Meet the Press,” and “Your Show of Shows.”

Weaver joined NBC when televisions were not yet widely found in American homes. They were still a luxury and at night, most families gathered around a large radio in their homes for entertainment. From his time in radio, he knew about the big audiences for morning programs. And he saw an opportunity to bring that to TV.

With “Today Show,” he faced two seemingly insurmountable hurdles:  TV consumption patterns and an existing business model for advertising. One was in terms of consumer habits. First, there was a belief that people would not watch TV so soon after they got out of bed. It was taken for granted that they would turn on the radio, but not that they would turn on the TV. Second, at the time, sponsorships, which were mostly on radio, were executed with sponsors producing and controlling the entire show.  

Weaver was looking to create a TV show that mimicked radio. It should be a new kind of background noise for listeners, while they prepared for their day. In a memo to his staff before the launch of the “Today Show,” Weaver said, “We cannot and should not try to build a show that will make people sit down in front of their set and divert their attention to the screen,” Weaver wrote. “We want America to shave, to eat, to dress, to get to work on time. But we also want America to be well informed, amused, to be lightened in spirit and in heart and to be reinforced in inner resolution through knowledge. A morning communications show, which will give the news, time, weather, tips for commuters and which will feature a rise-and-shine personality,” he outlined further.

When “Today Show” launched, huge portions of the country were not able to not tune in. Most homes did not have TVs yet, and many that did were not within antenna range of the 14 NBC stations that carried the show. Still, host Dave Garroway treated viewers to a communal experience. Holding a telephone to his ear, he shared a national weather report and scribbled on a chalkboard map of the country.

Today, television networks are always on, broadcasting 24 hours a day. But in 1952, this was a radical idea. There was no reason for families to turn on their new TV sets in the morning –not until NBC gave them a reason. This change in behavior had a ripple effect: once a family turned on the TV set in the morning, the set tended to stay on. This is a foundational factor in the rise of television consumption.

But first, there was a challenge: “We couldn’t talk the network stations into opening that early,” Weaver recalled. TV stations typically only showed a test pattern at 7 a.m. Televised news was also hampered by cumbersome camera and video relay technology. But the morning time slot gave the ”Today” show staff all night to assemble news footage and to fly in newspapers from around the country.

NBC built a “Today Show” studio inside the RCA Exhibition Hall on West 49th Street in New York City. The studio had floor-to-ceiling windows and pedestrians could peek inside. Additionally, staffers could see out the windows. One day early in the show’s tenure, a producer noticed former president Harry S. Truman watching through the windows and ran outside for an interview.

Another goal ”Today” had was luring listeners away from early morning radio programs, and in doing so, prompting more people to buy TV sets.

Before the “Today Show,” the TV industry was run like radio, with sponsors producing and controlling their own programs. Weaver felt networks should produce the programs and sell commercial time to several advertisers per show. His idea of taking the magazine style of advertising to TV was favorable towards the networks. With sponsors purchasing blocks in a show, rather than sponsoring an entire show, a single advertiser pulling out would not necessarily threaten a program. No longer was a show in jeopardy when an advertiser changed marketing plans.

Weaver left behind another legacy as well: he is the father of actress Sigourney Weaver.

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