He knew what TV could become

Mar 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

“He was one of the forces that made television indispensable.” Those are the words one great man of American broadcasting used to describe another: Historian Erik Barnouw, assessing the impact of Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver, a genius who in TV’s formative years saw it as capable of generating a lot more than advertising revenue.
“Television, by itself,” Weaver wrote in one of his many copious memos of the early ’50s, “can influence the world for good beyond all present thinking.” All it would take, he said, was “the inclusion of cultural and informational and enriching, enlightening material” crammed in between the Westerns and game shows and commercials.
Pat Weaver tried as hard and as tirelessly as anybody to influence the world for good via TV-“Better living through television,” as naive as that may sound now. His would be, as we know, a largely hopeless quest. Weaver saw NBC’s original production of “Peter Pan” fly into 65 million American homes at a time when there were probably a third as many TV sets as there are now, but he also lived to see his alma-mater network disgrace itself with “Fear Factor” and other exercises in pandering debasement.
Shaper of a new medium
Weaver died March 15 at the age of 93. His era of bold and golden ideas, of dreaming the big dream, preceded him in death by decades.
Like several of the brightest and most respectable TV executives over the years-Grant Tinker, Perry Lafferty, Hubbell Robinson-Weaver came to TV from a background in advertising. And yet one of his contributions to the medium was to lessen sponsor control over programming and program content, encouraging multiple sponsorships, spot sales and “participating,” rather than dictating, sponsors.
Weaver, as the obits noted, created such abiding and innovative formats as NBC’s “Today” show, now celebrating its 50th year. At the time, he was the object of considerable scoffing just for imagining that people would watch television between 7 o’clock and 9 o’clock in the morning. As Robert Metz recounts in his book “The Today Show: An Inside Look at 25 Tumultuous Years … and the Colorful and Controversial People Behind the Scenes,” the definitive history of the program, Weaver knew the show would be a success if people watched only 15 minutes of it; the rest of the time it would be on, seeping into the family’s morning routine, becoming an inextricable part of facing a new day.

Technology frequently lagged behind Weaver’s bolder visions. “Wide Wide World” promised viewers a fantastic new variation on the Sunday afternoon drive. The traveling would be done from the living room, where most TV sets were still moored, and with “Today” host Dave Garroway as companion, viewers would be transported live to remote locations all over the country.
Before his time
Unfortunately, there weren’t hand-held cameras or Ku-band trucks or communications satellites quite yet. “Wide Wide World” was hobbled by the cumbersome clunkiness of first-generation TV equipment. And yet some of us sat there spellbound at the sight of a live picture from a moving train or an amusement park roller coaster or a peek at the thunderousness of Niagara Falls.
The “Today” show suffered from technical glitches and shortcomings, but that’s what happens when you push a medium to its limits and beyond. Weaver wanted “Today” to be an information blitz, but he dropped one of his ideas prior to the premiere: an electronic ticker-tape running along the bottom of the screen that would spit out the latest headlines rat-a-tat-tat.
Pat was only about a half-century early with that one.
Metz refers to Weaver as having “grandiose plans” for television, of speaking with “infectious enthusiasm” about his breakthrough concepts, and of coining the term “spectaculars” for monthly specials that would interrupt the routine of regular prime-time fare with something splashy and extraordinary.
While others may have thought the highest calling of television was covering events live-rocket launches and Senate hearings and whatever-Weaver came up with shows that were events in themselves. The first so-called spectacular, “Satins and Spurs,” with the ever-overheated Betty Hutton, was a flop, but Weaver took setbacks in stride and went on to compile an enviable record of special shows. CBS followed his lead and competed not only for advertising dollars and big audiences but also to see who could come up with the grandest, most ambitious concepts.
Television was much more Broadway than Burbank then. Audiences saw a mix of “the classics” staged for TV with stunningly prestigious casts and directors, plus bold new original plays by bold new original playwrights-Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling, J.P. Miller, Tad Mosel. This stuff is, of course, Television 101, and it’s a truism that these were the best of times. But it took brave souls to make it so. Pat Weaver was the daring young man on the flying trapeze, and he inspired a great deal of daring and flying by others.
Out in Hollywood, unholy alliances between Warner Bros. and ABC, and Disney and ABC, were sealing the doom of live TV and shifting the production epicenter to Tinseltown. TV canned and put on film would be much more cost-effective and much less exciting. Legendary producer Fred Coe, interviewed for Max Wilk’s landmark history “The Golden Age of Television,” noted sadly that “The minute everything in this business went onto videotape or film, it became frozen.”
TV’s new reality
Today’s TV executives don’t talk or write memos about using the medium to elevate the culture or educate the populace or celebrate the better instincts of the human spirit. If they did, their names would vanish almost instantly from the cement blocks at their private parking spaces.
Lamenting the death of the big dream is, indeed, one of a TV critic’s major mantras. We’re rather obliged to do it on an annual or semi-annual basis. A disheartening occurrence such as the death of a founding father naturally brings on an attack of looking back with anger, but more so with regret. Unfortunately, TV critics, like old soldiers, just fade away; the new breed doesn’t really remember such giants as Pat Weaver nor the days when television was celebrated for the glorious possibilities it seemed to present.
Today instead of glorious possibilities we have corporate synergy and vertical integration and program repurposing.
Tinker, one of the few modern-era TV executives in a league with Weaver, remembers the man himself but more vividly remembers what he represented.
“I got to know him a little later in life,” Tinker recalled. “He was in the building at NBC working on some project when I first got there. I know the word `visionary’ is tossed around a lot, but what separates and distinguishes a Pat Weaver is that he actually did not have a road map the way the rest of us who came later did. He was looking at a blank piece of paper and starting from scratch. The rest of us had the road maps and the sketches and really just had to connect the dots.”
Television has the word vision built right into it, and maybe not just because it depends on the sense of sight but because when it first started, people of vision, people with great visions, tried to make it more than a seller of soap.
Each time one of the dreamers dies, a little bit more of the dream dies with him. Pat Weaver will be missed, yes, but he already was missed-just like the grand designs that had long since turned to dust.