Saturday, January 14, 2012

Today Turns 60

It was on 14 January 1952 that a revolutionary new show debuted. Today was the first television morning news show in the world. While today morning news shows are ubiquitous, in 1952 the idea was nothing short of being cutting edge. Indeed, even though it is still on the air after sixty years, there was some resistance on the part of National Broadcasting Company executives to even putting it on the air.

Today, also known as The Today Show, was the creation of innovative NBC executive Pat Weaver (he would go onto create The Tonight Show as well). Like nearly all television executives of his time, Mr. Weaver had begun in radio, where such early morning shows as The Breakfast Club (NBC Blue/ABC 1933-1968) and Breakfast in Hollywood (NBC/ABC/Mutual 1942-1948) met with success. He then thought that an early morning show could work on television as well. Pat Weaver's initial concept was called Rise and Shine, which would have been a variety show with songs and comedy routines. He reconsidered his concept on the basis that television should seek to differentiate itself from radio. Pat Weaver then developed the idea of a show that would be a "newspaper of the air," including everything that one would find in a morning newspaper. There would be news, weather reports, sports reports, interviews, and even a bit of humour. Rise and Shine then became Today.

As if an early morning show on television was not a revolutionary idea enough, Pat Weaver went one step further with the development of Today. Much like radio, at that point in television programmes were produced and sponsored by advertisers and their agency. Like Your Show of Shows before it(another legendary show created by Pat Weaver), NBC would sell time for commercials on Today to multiple advertisers. Not only would this be a more profitable approach for the network, but it would also give the network total control over Today.

While today we take breakfast television for granted, in 1951 Pat Weaver actually met with a good deal of resistance to his idea for Today. There were many within NBC who were convinced no on would watch television at such an early hour. Worse yet, the affiliates showed some opposition to Mr. Weaver's proposal of an early morning, network programme. Beyond the scepticism they shared with NBC executives that anyone would even watch television so early, there was also concern on the affiliates part that they would have to programme shows in the hours following Today (at this point in television history many stations did not begin broadcasting until 11:00 AM at the earliest). Of course, this would cost the local affiliates money. Not surprisingly, when Today debuted, only 24 NBC stations had agreed to show it.

Fortunately, time would prove the NBC executives and affiliates wrong and prove Pat Weaver right. Today would prove to be a success, largely due to two figures. The first was its original host, Dave Garroway. Mr. Garroway had started with NBC as a page in 1938. Mr. Garroway started work at Pittsburgh radio station KDKA in 1939. Two years later he left for the larger market of Chicago. During World War II Mr Garroway went to work for WMAQ in Chicago. He soon became one of the most popular DJs not only in Chicago, but in the entire nation. In 1948 and 1949 he was voted the best disc jockey in Billboard's Annual Disc Jockey Poll. Eventually Dave Garroway's popularity would win him a place on NBC Television. In 1949 Garroway at Large debuted. On television Mr. Garroway had an easy going, casual style  in which viewers were often given a look backstage of the show. Unlike many at NBC, Dave Garroway actually believed in Pat Weaver's idea of an early morning show. As the host of Today Dave Garroway would prove extremely popular, to the point  that for a time Today would be called The Dave Garroway Today Show (not only the single time it would have a title other than Today, but the only time it bore the name of its host).

The other figure that would make Today a success would have considerably less experience in television than Mr. Garroway and was also a good deal hairier. As popular as Dave Garroway was, it would be a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs who would save Today from cancellation. While Today had a respectfully sized audience, by the beginning of 1953 it was still hardly a financial success. At that time the show cost $60,000 a week, an amount hardly covered by the show's advertising. Rumours that NBC might cancel the early morning show were reflected in headlines such one in Billboard: "TODAY MAY BECOME YESTERDAY TOMORROW." In January 1953 there was a very real possibility that the world's first early morning news show might end shortly after its first year.

It was in early 1953 that former NBC pages and then pet store owners Buddy Mennella and LeRoy Waldron were due to appear on another programme with their chimpanzee J. Fred Muggs. Today writer Len Safire took J. Fred and his trainers to visit Today producer Mort Werner. Mort Werner then approved the idea of making the chimp a regular on the programme. J. Fred Muggs made his debut on Today  on 3 February 1953. J. Fred Muggs drove ratings for Today through the roof as children tuned into the programme to see the chimpanzee and as a result turned their parents into regular viewers of the show. J. Fred Muggs also proved to be a merchandising bonanza for NBC. There were J. Fred Muggs colouring books, dolls, a Little Golden Book, puzzles, and many other items. While J. Fred Muggs propelled Today to new heights of popularity, as is often the case, there were problems behind the scenes. In particular, J. Fred Muggs and Dave Garroway did not get along particularly well. In fact, Mr. Garroway was often bitten by the chimp. Worse yet, after three and a half years J. Fred had grown in size, making him stronger and harder for his trainers to rein him in. NBC then ended its contract with J. Fred Muggs. He was replaced by another chimp, Kokomo, in 1957. Kokomo would not prove as popular as J. Fred, and left the show in 1958.

Today would have a lasting impact on television. Its most obvious impact was in proving that audiences would tune into early morning television. Not only would local stations programme their own shows in the early morning, but eventually Today would be imitated both i the United States and across the world. In fact, CBS would try to imitate Today as early as 1954. The Morning Show was hosted by Walter Cronkite, Jack Paar, John Henry Faulk, and Dick Van Dyke in its two years on the air. CBS has tried to imitate it since then, although ABC would meet with some success with its more entertainment oriented Good Morning America.

Besides inspiring similar morning shows across the Pond, Today would have a lasting impact on British broadcasting, although not in the way Pat Weaver or original producer Mort Werner may have wanted it. In 1954 Today covered the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, coming early at 5:00 AM EST to do so. With communications satellites several years in the future, NBC depended upon a then state of the art Mufax machine to transmit pictures over short wave radio frequencies from the BBC in London. The pictures could arrive as swiftly as nine minutes (quite fast for the time). At one point there came a lull in the transmissions. To fill time Dave Garroway interviewed J. Fred Muggs about coronations and monarchs among chimpanzees. As might be expected, NBC would also interrupt coverage of the Coronation with commercials, among them ones in which J. Fred pitched for a brand of tea. The British press was not amused and launched broadsides against NBC. Worse yet, at the time Parliament was debating the creation of commercial television in the United Kingdom. Opponents of commercial television pointed to NBC's coverage of the Coronation as evidence as to why commercial television should not exist in the UK. In the end, while commercial television would arrive in the United Kingdom, because of NBC and the other American networks' coverage of the Coronation, commercial advertisements on television in the UK would be much more heavily regulated. Not surprisingly, a rule existed that banned commercials during any coverage of the Royals.

While Today was revolutionary in being the first early morning programme, it would also prove to be a pioneer with regards to women in the field of television journalism. While most people probably think of Barbara Walters as a pioneer with regards to female journalists on television, she was not the first female reporter on Today. She was preceded by both Estelle Parsons and Mary Kelly. If the name "Estelle Parsons" sounds familiar, it is because she would later be an Oscar winning actress. It was in 1951 that she took a job with NBC as a production assistant on Today--this before even Dave Garroway was hired. As a production assistant Miss Parsons' duties were varied. She called the United States Weather Bureau for weather reports. She retrieved wire copy and gave it to then newsreader Jim Fleming. Eventually Estelle Parsons' role would go from behind the camera to in front of it. She interviewed figures from Eleanor Roosevelt to Marilyn Monroe. In 1952 she even went to the Democratic convention to cover presidential candidate Estes Kefauver. This made Miss Parsons the first woman to cover national politics on television. Even though Miss Parsons had a good deal of success on Today, her heart was in acting and she eventually left the show to pursue that field.

Like Estelle Parsons, Mary Kelly was with Today in its earliest days. Miss Kelly worked her way from simply getting coffee for the show's panellists to writing and eventually conducting interviews in front of the camera. Eventually Miss Kelly became the entertainment feature editor at Today. She interviewed screen legend Buster Keaton, reported on the Tony Awards, and reported on the filming of the movie Saint Joan in London. And well before the "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer"" segment currently on Today, Mary Kelly flew around the globe. In 1957 she was promoted to Associate Producer.

Eventually the Today production team would want women to be more visible on the show, but they would forego such professional, confident women as Estelle Parsons and Mary Kelly for young women in a more traditional role. The year 1955 saw the beginning of the era of what were formally referred to as "Women's Editors," but were informally referred to as "Today Girls." The Today Girl handled issues related to fashion, family, women, and light hearted fare. With but a few exceptions (Beryl Pfizer and Barbara Walters), the Today Girls were not serious journalists, but often entertainers. Former Miss America Lee Meriwether was the first Today Girl. Other notable Today Girls were Betsy Palmer, Helen O'Connell, Florence Henderson, and former Miss Rheingold Robbin Bain. The last Today Girl would be the one to break the mould: Barbara Walters.

Miss Walters was the last person hired by David Garroway before he left. Hired as a writer, she started out writing women's segments before writing harder news segments. Like Estelle Parsons and Mary Kelly before her, she would eventually appear in front of the camera. By the mid-Sixties she was a regular panellist on Today. By 1966 Miss Walters was a de facto co-host of the show, even if she did not officially have the title. She interviewed figures from Dean Rusk to Grace Kelly to Richard Nixon to Truman Capote. Despite this, Barbara Walters would not be recognised as a co-host until 1974. While it would take Miss Walters literally years to achieve the title of co-host, since that time many women have had the title of co-host (or co-anchor as it is now called) on Today.

Not only would Today have the first female co-anchor of any early morning news show, it also had the first African American co-anchor. Bryant Gumbel had started his career with NBC as a sportscaster for NBC Sports. In the fall of 1980 Bryant Gumbel began to appear on Today regularly with the feature "Sportsman of the Week." When Tom Brokaw left as co-anchor of The Today Show, then producer Steve Friedman campaigned for Bryant Gumbel was his replacement. Mr. Gumbel was a controversial choice with both NBC News and NBC Sports, and not because he was African American. NBC News was opposed to the idea of a sportscaster getting the position of co-anchor on Today. NBC Sports was none too happy with losing Bryant Gumbel as their primary sportscaster and their biggest star. Mr. Friedman persisted and Bryant Gumbel debuted as the co-host of Today on 4 January 1982.

For the most part Today has remained unchanged over the years. Due to Dave Garroway's precarious health, NBC changed the shooting schedule so that most of the show was shot in the afternoon on videotape. The only part of Today that was live at that point were the news reports read by Frank Blair. After Dave Garroway left the show in 1961, Today went back to being live and has been aired live ever since. Dave Garroway's departure would also bring another change to Today. Prior to 1961 Today had been under the control of NBC's entertainment division. With Dave Garroway's departure, Today was taken over by NBC News. NBC News attempted to make Today a much more serious news programme, appointing John Chancellor as Dave Garroway's replacement. Unfortunately, NBC News' changes to the show did not work out. John Chancellor was uncomfortable in the role of Today Show host and missed being out in the field as a reporter. Viewers seemed to prefer the lighter approach of Dave Garroway's Today Show. After only a short time Mr. Chancellor left Today (he would go onto anchor The NBC Evening News) and he was replaced by Hugh Downs. Mr. Downs was much more in the mould of Dave Garroway, with an easy going approach he had honed as the announcer on NBC's The Home Show and Tonight Starring Jack Paar. Since then Today has remained the balance of hard news and lighter material that it had been in the beginning--Pat Weaver's "newspaper of the air."

While Today has not changed in its format over the years, it would go from airing five days a week to airing every day of the week. For most of its history Today only aired Monday through Friday. On September 20, 1987 NBC debuted a Sunday edition of Today. Originally 90 minutes in length, the Sunday edition of Sunday was shortened to one hour in 1992 when Meet the Press expanded to an hour. The Saturday edition of Today debuted on August 1, 1992. It has always been two hours in length.

Another major change is that over the years Today has expanded in length. For most of its history Today was two hours long, but beginning in the Nineties it was start to expand. In the fall of 1999 NBC created a spin off of Today called Later Today. It was hosted by Jodi Applegate, former Today Girl Florence Henderson, and Asha Blake. Later Today suffered from low ratings, so that in August 2000 it was replaced by the third hour Today. On September 10, 2007 a fourth hour of Today was added. Originally the fourth hour was hosted by former newsreader and current co-anchor Ann Curry, current newsreader Natalie Morales, and Hoda Kotb. On April 7, 2008 Ann Curry and Natalie Morales were replaced by Kathie Lee Gifford. The fourth hour of Today would also change its format at that point, dropping the news segments and concentrating more on interviews and feature segments. While the first three hours of Today remained more of a news magazine, the fourth hour of Today became more of talk show.

While we tend to take breakfast television for granted now, Today was a revolutionary programme in its time. It invented a whole new genre of television, that of the television morning news magazine. It has been imitated many times over, not simply by CBS and ABC, but by many cable channels as well. Today also featured the first female political news reporter, the first female co-host, and the first African American co-host (Bryant Gumbel). Although it has sometimes been labelled "infotainment (a suitable label for some of its competitors)," I personally think it still most accurately described as Pat Weaver envisioned it--"a newspaper of the air." I think this is the reason that Today has remained the number one morning news programme in the United States. Unlike some of its competition it has rarely swung too far either towards hard news or towards pure entertainment. I rather suspect that this will keep it on top for another sixty years.

(Here, courtesy of NBC News, is a rather amazing video celebrating the 60th anniversary of Today)

No comments: