Now, Jimmy Fallon has taken the reins of NBC’s Tonight Show, the longest, currently running television entertainment program in the United States.
The Tonight Show began in 1954, with Steve Allen as its first host. Then came Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and now Jimmy Fallon.
With all the hoopla about the Fallon version of Tonight, few know how the show was created. I was very lucky, because the man who created both Tonight and the TODAY Show, was a former teacher.
It was April 1, 1987 when I first entered a classroom in Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA to begin a 10-week lecture class called "Home Communication and Entertainment in the 20th Century." I was excited about the class because of the inside knowledge of the teacher. He was no academic, but a media visionary who had practically invented network television programming as we know it.
In the coming weeks, I would find Sylvester "Pat" Weaver a charming, friendly, accessible man. He was also stunningly eloquent and firmly grounded in a set of beliefs about the public obligations of television that would be ridiculed today by industry executives as idealistic and economically unsound.
Yet, as the former chairman and president of NBC when television came of age in the 1950s, this executive had — from the TODAY Show to the Tonight Show — almost single-handedly created the program genres that dominate network schedules to this day.
After an incredible life of innovation, Pat Weaver died at the age of 93 at his Santa Barbara, CA home on March 15, 2002. In his case, it's a vast understatement to say that his legacy lives on.
In addition to creating the morning and evening television formats that every network still embraces, Weaver developed the "magazine format" for advertisers, a concept that shifted control of early television programming from the sponsors to the networks. When Weaver joined NBC in 1949, radio was the dominant mass medium and TV was still considered a luxury in most American homes.
As had been the practice in network radio, early TV programming was produced and controlled by advertisers. "Most people don't realize that the networks were really just facilities and had nothing to do with programming at the time," Weaver told us. Vowing to change the practice, he devised the idea that NBC should produce its own programs and then sell commercial time in segments to multiple advertisers.
As a radio veteran who had previously worn the hats of writer, producer, director, announcer and reporter, Weaver felt comfortable guiding NBC into the television era. If he'd done nothing else, his taste in talent and programming alone would have made his career.
It was Pat Weaver who introduced American TV audiences to Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Fred Allen and Jimmy Durante.
Weaver also created the concept of the TV "spectacular" or "special," as it was later called. He introduced Producer's Showcase, a program vehicle to introduce new talent to American audiences. Among the landmark live broadcasts under his watch were a production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin and Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera commissioned for television.
Weaver's programming track record remains unparalleled, including such television classics as the still-running Meet the Press in news (it began on radio) to Your Show of Shows, an entertainment giant starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris with a writing staff that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart.
To students of the history of television, Pat Weaver will be remembered as one of the medium's pioneers. Yet, in his later years, Weaver viewed his television legacy with great disappointment. He believed that television had an obligation to expand the minds of its audience.
Though a consummate showman and no highbrow, Weaver saw television's public service obligation as one to educate and entertain with a high level of artistry. For this, he was seen as a visionary who was sometimes too far ahead of his broadcasting colleagues.
Take, for example, the TODAY Show, the morning broadcast that Weaver created with host Dave Garroway in 1952 to lure listeners away from morning radio. The original idea was to introduce the audience to the best and brightest of American thinkers. Writers, artists, scientists and the country's intelligentsia would use the leisurely morning time slot to expose the emerging television audience to new, cutting-edge ideas.
Originally, the Tonight Show (first titled Broadway Open House), he told our class, was created to expose Americans to the finest talent in the nation's artistic capital, New York City. Weaver wanted to take live cameras into Broadway theatres, opera houses, dance halls and nightclubs to introduce NBC's audiences to performers and creative works that were new and undiscovered.
In essence, Pat Weaver wanted NBC's morning and late night programming to expose the common man to the best in American arts and culture. "It's very disappointing," he said. "There's occasional good things on, but there's no consistent arts programming."
The TODAY show, he lamented, had become a series of quick segments to hawk books, movies and new products. Tonight was little more than a vehicle for topical comedy. Weaver's disdain for his grown-up program creations was palpable.
It should come as no surprise that a man, who in 1954 was described by New Yorker magazine as television's "most unrelenting thinker and most vocal theorist," would make enemies among the corporate bean counters. After eight years at NBC, Weaver was forced to relinquish control to Robert Sarnoff, the son of Gen. David Sarnoff (nicknamed "General Fangs" by Weaver), the head of RCA. Weaver left the network in 1956.
Weaver's vision for TV's future followed him after his NBC days. In the early 1960s, he became a pay television pioneer by heading STV (Subscription Television) in Los Angeles. The venture, which would offer movies and arts programming on a subscription basis, failed. Not because audiences didn't want it, but because media competitors used the courts and political system to block it.
Today, when I hear a young television executive thumb his nose at the idea of serving the public interest due to "the competitive realities of the marketplace," I think of Pat Weaver. The memorable ten weeks I spent in his classroom taught me that one can pioneer a profitable media business while at the same time serving the higher interests of the community. The trick, Weaver knew so well, is not becoming blinded by greed.
Oh, a footnote for the inquiring minds among you. Yes, Pat Weaver was the father of the actress Sigourney Weaver. And yes, she did show up to sit in on her father's class at UCLA. Nice lady…a trait that must run in the family.