Very quietly this Thursday, NBC will celebrate its 75th anniversary. It's not that the network isn't excited about it; it's just that it plans to salute its longevity during one of the sweeps periods next year.
In all of that long, illustrious history, perhaps no one played a bigger role in the network's success than did Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the man whose imagination spawned some of the most popular and enduring programs on both television and radio. He joined the network in 1949 and quickly rose to become president despite a stormy relationship with legendary NBC and RCA boss David Sarnoff.
It was Weaver who invented the Today
shows, two of the network's biggest profit centers to this day. And it was Weaver who brought to television advertisers the notion that it was quite all right to be just one sponsor among many in a program, that the advertiser didn't have to control the entire show.
Weaver began his career as a comedy writer for KHJ radio in Los Angeles. He later moved to executive positions in radio, in the tobacco industry and at Young and Rubicam, one of the nation's premier advertising agencies. It was at Y&R that he had an epiphany that radically altered the course of television history.
Weaver fought for the concept of multiple sponsorships, allowing more than one advertiser to buy into a television show. By breaking the ad agencies' hold on the developing medium, he opened the door to a wider variety of creative productions, and turned NBC into a formidable television presence.
Over the course of his first 31/2 years at NBC, he brought his concept to fruition. "We now produced and owned nearly all of our programs and we had so many hits that we had surpassed CBS and begun to show sizable profits," he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, The Best Seat in the House.
When he arrived at NBC in June 1949, Weaver had his work cut out for him. CBS already had eight of the top 10 programs on television. In Weaver's words, "NBC had Milton Berle and little else."
He went to work to develop such programs as Your Show of Shows, the trend-setting comedy review that starred Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner.
Weaver also brought the world the first national morning television program, Today,
which turns 50 next year, staging the show at NBC's ground-level studio on 49th Street in New York much like it is today. His idea was to create a morning radio program on television, with time, weather, news and entertaining features that audiences could experience by either watching or listening as they went about their morning routine. Although the show started out slowly, by the end of its first year, it was the highest-grossing program on television. Now, of course, it dominates television.
Two years later, he hired California comedian Steve Allen to host a new late-night program,
The Tonight Show. In 1956, Weaver lured another Californian, newsman Chet Huntley, to New York to pair up with David Brinkley on NBC's nightly newscast, to be known as The Huntley-Brinkley Report.
Given the limitations of 1950s technology, Weaver developed new ideas about the direction television news should take. "Instead of concentrating on spot news," he explained, "I believed we should develop real world coverage, a wide view of trends and developments, both national and global, that would have greater significance than any one day's events."
Now 92 and in failing health, Weaver lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., with his wife of 59 years, Elizabeth.