Pat Weaver, TV visionary

Mar 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

These days, when people debate whether television news has any purpose besides profit, we are reminded that Pat Weaver wanted all of television to enhance life.
Pat, who died at 93 earlier this month, came to TV in its earliest days from a successful career in advertising. It was universally assumed he was “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” in Sloan Wilson’s best-selling 1955 novel about Madison Avenue. In the movie the next year, Gregory Peck played the hero; they were of the same body type: tall, rangy, Western.
As NBC Television’s first programming executive, Weaver was not hampered by precedents; there weren’t any. Nor was he overly inhibited by money constraints. In those days, it was less important for NBC Television to show a profit than to give people reasons to buy RCA sets. Out of that mix came the medium’s “golden age”-live drama, big-name comedians, revue formats, names like Tony Minor and Fred Coe.

In only seven years as NBC’s chief programmer, from 1949 to 1956, he made his indelible mark. When Pat was at the top of the food chain, I was plankton, but our paths kept crossing because he always had ideas for news. He urged us to do documentaries, he wanted a series about the “trouble spots” of that day’s world, he thought our reporters and commentators were not distinguished enough. He goaded us remorselessly. He goaded everybody.
I remember a meeting he called of the dramatists who wrote for NBC’s various series, urging them to use their scripts to improve mankind. Remember, those were the early ’50s, when the world seemed forever split between two menacing powers, when schools taught kids to duck under desks, and New York’s governor promoted backyard bomb shelters. Pat wanted television that helped Americans live in that world. But as so often with him, his audience missed the point. Most questions from the floor were about fees and unanswered phone calls.
His use of the word “spectacular” for the one-shot star vehicles he put together encapsulates his use of language and his personality. He got the Royal Ballet to do classical ballet-“Sleeping Beauty”-at 6 on a Sunday evening and then forever boasted that more people-30 million, according to Nielsen-saw it than all who had seen it in the world’s concert halls and opera houses in the century or more since its first performance. Pat, a one-time radio gag writer, looked at television in a way that was almost Aristotelian.
Live pictures fascinated Weaver. He was among those early ones who believed in a “window on the world.” He tried to wrestle the big, clunky cameras of his day to his purpose, to show all the things happening everywhere at the same time, in a program called “Wide, Wide World,” a phrase taken from the Dartmouth alma mater. It didn’t quite work, though the program thrived for several years. But it had to be scripted, the camera moves rehearsed. The spontaneity at its core was unattainable. Often, watching in real time reporters like Ashleigh Banfield scrambling over an Afghan battlefield with a videophone camera, I have thought of Pat and how he would have embraced today’s technology.
Newspaper accounts of his passing prominently noted that “Today” was his idea, and that it still flourishes after 50 years. None I saw mentioned how almost everybody, me included, thought getting an audience at 7 in the morning would be impossible. In February 1952, there was no television at 7 in the morning, only a test pattern. We were wrong, and he was right.
An then former ad agency executive Sylvester L. Weaver Jr. used “Today” and “Tonight,” his other creation, to break advertisers’ hold on programs. No more “sponsors”-individual advertisers would buy individual commercials spots, just as in newspapers and magazines. That was a tough fight, but he won it. He won some and he lost some.
Pat meant to improve the world, and he did. But not as much as he wanted.
Reuven Frank was twice president of NBC News, from 1968-73 and 1982-84.