09/27/1999 at 01:00 AM EDT
Ten years after network television flickered to life with NBC's inaugural broadcast from the 1939 New York World's Fair, the new medium remained a blurry promise, its shadowy images picked up by a mere fraction of American households. That was when advertising executive Sylvester "Pat" Weaver took over the struggling NBC-TV programming department with a visionary's faith in the future. "I was hired to guide television into what it had a chance of becoming," says Weaver, 90. To help it along, he created two shows that after five decades still bracket the viewing day: Today, TV's first morning news program when it dawned in 1952, and two years later, The Tonight Show (then starring Steve Allen), which ushered in the age of late-night talk. Even prouder of two other offspring—his daughter is film star Sigourney Weaver, 49; son Trajan, 53, is an ad-agency owner—Weaver, now retired, lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., with his wife of 57 years, Elizabeth, 86. Like millions of other Americans, he starts his morning with breakfast and Today. He spoke recently with correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates.
The earliest television wasn't much to look at, and nobody was much impressed. It wasn't until about 1949, the year I went to NBC, that the TV-set population really began to explode. In my advertising days, the big agencies produced and owned shows with stars like Burns and Allen, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. All the networks did was sell us air time. But when I came to NBC, I started a revolution: The network, not the agencies, built the shows. And I hired all the same stars. Most of them had been on radio, and I remember having to persuade Jimmy Durante to go on our Saturday night comedy program. He'd never been on TV on purpose. He felt that everybody would know his act too well if they could see him as well as hear him.
The Fred Allen Show was my first gigantic program. The first night, there were a couple of guys in the back of the control room chatting when I was trying to run the show. So I turned around and said, "Hey, fellas, you're bothering me, and this is my first show. Would you mind leaving the booth?" And they did. Then, on the break, the technician said, "Do you know who those guys are you just threw out? One is Lee Bristol, president of Bristol-Myers, our biggest advertiser. And the other is Deke Aylesworth, the president of NBC." After the show I told Fred, "You were great, but I may not be around much longer."
In those days we did only live TV. It was risky, but perfectly suited for people like Fred. He just got funnier and funnier any time mistakes were made. Jack Benny was like that too. People not so quick on their feet didn't last on live television.
One of my big hopes at NBC was to start a morning show. At the time none of the affiliates around the country wanted to open up so early. Most of them started at midday, and some not until evening. But I knew from the ratings services that people were listening to radio from 7 to 10 a.m., so I thought we could build a television show that they could watch while having breakfast and getting ready for work or school. We designed it so that when they stepped away, they wouldn't miss too much—they'd know they could come back and catch the news and weather. Right from the beginning, we had the window out onto the street like you see now on Today. Television was so new, we got very big crowds of gawkers looking in.
About two or three months into the show, two guys brought their pet chimp, J. Fred Muggs, onto the set as a stunt. It turned out he worked so well with host Dave Garroway—even though he got in trouble sometimes for biting people and had to wear diapers because he wasn't housebroken—we kept him on the show for years. Muggs helped build Today's audience, especially among kids who insisted that their parents tune in. By the end of the first year, Billboard had a headline that read, "Today is the Biggest Grosser in All of Show Business!" My cronies at NBC made a bronze plaque of it, and at the bottom they wrote, "And They Called It Weaver's Folly!"