Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pat Weaver: American Television Innovator

It was 10 years ago today that Pat Weaver died. Unless one is a television historian or a very avid television buff, chances are good that he or she has not heard of Pat Weaver. He or she has most likely heard of his daughter, actress Sigourney Weaver. Depending on his or her age, he or she may have even heard of his brother, comic Doodles Weaver. Despite the fact that both his daughter and brother may now be more famous than him, Pat Weaver would have a more lasting impact on most Americans than either of them. The simple fact is that if one has ever watched American television with any regularity, then he or she has seen first hand the impact of Pat Weaver's career.

Pat Weaver was born Sylvester Barnabee Weaver in Los Angeles, California on 21 December 1908. He studied philosophy and classic at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire and graduated magna cum laude. He went to work for the advertising agency of Young & MacCallister before entering the field of radio. He worked as an announcer, writer, producer, director, actor, and salesman at KHJ in Los Angeles starting in 1932. By 1934 he was programme manager at KFRC in San Francisco. IT was in 1935 that he first worked for NBC. In 1935 he joined the advertising firm of Young &  Rubicam, where he would become their supervisor of programmes for their radio division and later he would become the agency's vice president in charge of radio and television. From 1942 to 1945 he served in the United States Navy.

It was in 1949 that Pat Weaver joined the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the company where he would make a name for himself. With a good deal of experience in both radio and advertising, NBC brought Mr. Weaver in to develop programming for NBC's fledgeling television network. One of his first acts at NBC was the creation of the legendary sketch comedy and variety show Your Show of Shows. Your Show of Shows consisted primarily of sketches parodying American life, books, movies, and even more high brow things such as opera. If the format sounds familiar, it is because NBC would more or less reuse it for a new show in the Seventies called Saturday Night Live. Your Show of Shows would make stars out of Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. Many of its writers, such as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, and Mel Tolkin would go onto further fame in television and movies.

Beyond its then revolutionary format, Your Show of Shows would be ground breaking for another reason. On radio sponsors often produced and owned the programmes, a mode of operation that was carried over into television. Pat Weaver thought this gave the sponsors more power over programming than the networks even had. For this reason he developed what he called the "magazine concept" of advertising and would later become known as "participation advertising." Quite simply, NBC would own and produce Your Show of Shows, then sell time to advertisers to air commercials during the show. In other words, it would not be unlike a magazine, in which several different companies advertise in the publication and would have no control over its content. Pat Weaver would utilise this same approach to advertising on Today and The Tonight Show. Eventually it would become an industry standard in television and it remains one to this day.

Your Show of Shows would prove to be a hit for NBC and Mr. Weaver would follow it up with yet another success. In 1950 the networks were very aggressive in expanding their programming. NBC had already filled nearly every available slot in primetime. Pat Weaver then struck upon the idea of airing a show late at night. This made sense to him as it was already apparent that people's viewing habits on television differed from their listening habits on radio. In the days of Old Time Radio most people would listen to their favourite programmes from 7:00 PM Eastern to 10:00 PM Eastern, then shut their radio off.  Viewers approached television differently from radio, however, turning on their sets at 8:00 PM Eastern and watching them until they went to bed. Pat Weaver thought audiences would stay up later if only there was a television show on the air in the late hours of the day.

The end result of all of this was Broadway Open House, the first network late night show. Broadway Open House was a comedy variety show that aired weeknights at 11:30 PM Eastern. Unlike modern day late night shows, Broadway Open House was not a talk show. Instead it played more like a comedy revue straight out of vaudeville, with stand up routines, skits, and the sort of off colour humour that would be found in later late night shows. Broadway Open House would prove very popular in New York City, where as many as two thirds of the city's television sets would be tuned to the show. Unfortunately, in the very early Fifties the percentage of families who owned television in the United States was still relatively low. What is more only the largest cities in the country (New York, Chicago, Los Angles, Cleveland, St. Louis, and so on) even had television stations. It would seem that the time was not right for a late night television show. Broadway Open House went off the air on 24 August 1951.  Pat Weaver had not given up on the idea on late night programming, however, as he would make another, more successful attempt at a late night show at a time when television ownership was more common and there were more television stations were in the United States. That show would be The Tonight Show, but more on that later.

Pat Weaver not only invented late night network television, he also invented the early morning television news show ("breakfast television," as it is known). On radio such early morning shows as The Breakfast Club (NBC Blue/ABC 1933-1968) and Breakfast in Hollywood (NBC/ABC/Mutual 1942-1948) had met with success. Mr. Weaver then figured that an early morning television show could also be a hit. His initial concept for an early morning show had the tentative title of Rise and Shine. It would have been a variety show with songs and comedy routines, much like The Breakfast Club before it. Pat Weaver then reconsidered his idea, deciding that television should differentiate itself from radio. He then developed the idea of an early morning 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. This new idea Mr. Weaver had he would name Today.

Today would have a rocky start, with the all too real possibility of cancellation looming over it in its early days. Fortunately, it would be saved when a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs became a regular on the show. J. Fred Muggs not only saved Today, but also became a phenomenon all unto himself. While J. Fred Muggs would eventually leave Today (host Dave Garroway and Mr. Muggs did not get along particularly well...), the show has remained on ever since.  Indeed, it would create a whole new genre of television, "breakfast television," and would be imitated by rival networks CBS and ABC, as well as other broadcasting organisations around the world.

Although he is often credited with such, Pat Weaver did not invent the concept of the television special. Television specials--a one time special programme that pre-empts regular programming--existed even before Pat Weaver was hired by NBC. That having been said, he took the format where it had never been before. Mr. Weaver conceived what he called "spectaculars," one time programmes meant to bring prestige to NBC as well as larger audiences. Like Your Show of Shows and Today before them  and The Tonight Show after them, Pat Weaver's spectaculars would utilise the "magazine concept" of advertising. Classically educated, Mr. Weaver often sought to bring culture into the homes of Americans with his spectaculars. Mary Martin repeated her Broadway performance in a television version of Peter Pan. NBC aired Lord Laurence Olivier's  film adaptation of Richard III (1955) as a spectacular.  In 1955 the network aired Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty performed by Dame Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes.

NBC would meet with such success with their spectaculars that eventually CBS and ABC would produce their own. Of course, as time passed the word special would overtake the term spectacular. Specials would proliferate on television from the Fifties to the Seventies, only to decline in the Eighties. Never mind the Broadway plays, operas, and ballets that NBC had aired under Pat Weaver, today the dance-musical specials are largely gone as well. Still, holiday specials persist to this day and viewers largely have Pat Weaver to thank for this.

Pat Weaver had met with a large degree of success at NBC, with his only failure being Broadway Open House. That having been said, Mr. Weaver had not given up on the idea of late night programming. It would be another man who would help bring Pat Weaver's dream of late night programming to fruition. On WNBT, NBC's flagship station in New York City, there was a late night show hosted by announcer Steve Allen. The show had the format that has more or less been that of The Tonight Show for the past fifty years. It featured sketch comedy, interviews and games with audience members, interviews with guests, and musical performances. Weaver thought that if the show was successful in New York City, it might be successful nationwide. Tonight debuted on NBC on 27 September 1954.

Unlike Broadway Open House, Tonight would prove to be successful. It remains on the air to this day, even after several changes in hosts. Both ABC and CBS would attempt their own late night talk shows, with CBS finally seeing success after nearly forty years with The Late Show with David Letterman.  ABC would also find some success with Jimmy Kimmel Live. The format has also been imitated by several cable channels.

Pat Weaver had been classically educated and thought that television could be used as a means of bringing culture to the public. In 1951 he launched Operation Frontal Lobes, a series of programmes that would do exactly that. Operation Frontal Lobes consisted of documentary specials, interviews with thinkers and artists, and even the occasional educational element in entertainment programmes.

Unfortunately, as the Fifties progressed Pat Weaver would find himself more and more at odds with NBC. Throughout his career at the network his emphasis had been on programme innovation and disseminating culture to the masses. By the mid-Fifties many in the network preferred standardisation in the network's schedule, with an emphasis on regularly scheduled series. Pat Weaver left NBC in 1956. Even after leaving NBC, he would continue to be an innovator. In the Sixties he launched Subscription Television, Inc., which was an early attempt at pay cable. This would result in a battle with traditional broadcasters, which Pat Weaver ultimately won. Unfortunately, Subscription Television, Inc. would go bankrupt in the result. Regardless, Subscription Television, Inc. foresaw the development of such premium cable channels as HBO and Showtime. It would seem that once again Pat Weaver was slightly ahead of the times.

It was on 18 March 2002 that the legendary programmer died at the age of 93. The cause was pneumonia. He left behind a legacy that changed television forever. Pat Weaver diminished the control advertisers had over television programming with his "magazine concept" of programming. This approach, in which the networks produced the programmes and then sold time to advertisers would become the dominant model of selling advertising in television. He created the classic sketch comedy series Your Show of Shows. He invented late night programming with Broadway Open House. He invented breakfast television with Today. While he did not invent the television special, he transformed them so that they would become a dominant force in television for three decades. He also brought The Tonight Show to television. It is quite possible that no other television programmer had the impact on the medium that Pat Weaver ever had. Many have may have had more success (although Mr. Weaver had a good deal of that), but none would ever change the medium the way that Pat Weaver did. Indeed, most of Pat Weaver's innovations remain a part of television to this day.

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