Ten years ago Thursday morning, I was bundled up in the iconic square of Rockefeller Center to interview fans of the “Today” show. I remember meeting a mother and daughter who took a red-eyed flight from Salt Lake City just to be there, outside the studio watching, for the 60th anniversary of their favorite show. They gave me something essential in the media: a fan’s gaze.
Fast forward ten years, and “Today” is set to televise another party, this time for its 70th birthday. It will be more moderate this time, due to restrictions linked to Covid-19 and to changes in consumption habits. The top rated days of “Today” appear to be long gone. Yet it is still a hugely profitable part of NBC News and an important institution for NBCUniversal as a whole.
“Today” invented the very idea of morning television, sparking rivals like “GMA” and “CBS Mornings” and at least a dozen shows on cable.
These days television networks and streaming services operate 24/7, but in 1952, a breakfast time broadcast was a radical idea. Television was still a new medium. Local stations usually did not show a test pattern until 7 a.m. There was no reason for families to turn on their trendy televisions in the morning – until NBC gave them a reason by creating the “Today” show. This was a big deal because once they turned on the TV in the morning, the TV tended to stay on – a factor in the amazing increase in video consumption since then.
How NBC marks this anniversary
On Thursday, some of the “Today” hosts visited the Empire State Building. The building was lit orange in the evening to mark the show’s 70th anniversary. Co-host Savannah Guthrie was absent, however, due to her recent positive Covid test.
Guthrie greeted “Today” from his home earlier in the week due to the positive test. She said she felt a few “little sniffles, not much more than that.”
NBC’s main anniversary event is an on-air celebration on Friday, the actual anniversary.
If Guthrie tests negative by Friday, she will be in the studio for the show. Otherwise, she will join from her home.
Go back in time to the very first broadcast
Founding producer Sylvester “Pat” Weaver wanted the new show to mimic radio, in that it would be sort of background noise as listeners prepare for the day. This premise is still true today. “We can’t and shouldn’t try to build a show that will force people to sit in front of their set and divert their attention to the screen,” Weaver wrote in a memo. “We want America to shave, eat, dress, get to work on time. But we also want America to be knowledgeable, fun, light-hearted and light-hearted. and may it be strengthened in inner resolve through knowledge. “
Reading these words so many decades later, what struck me was the feeling that “America” was a cohesive unit, a group that would all watch the same show. Now the country is split between “Fox & Friends” and “Morning Joe” and a dozen other options.
My other takeaway: Weaver understood, to borrow a televised axiom, that “people watch people”. Even if you are only listening halfway down the hall, you want to know and trust the person you hear. Dave Garroway, the first host of “Today”, had a laid back style but a serious core. Garroway once said of his oft-quoted flippancy, “Nobody knows how hard I work to look that way.”
How the show “Today” is developing
Over the decades, “Today” has showcased some of television’s best talent, both on and off camera. Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira were some of the co-hosts during the year. Weaver, the founding producer, then headed all of NBC Entertainment. Decades later, executive producer prodigy Jeff Zucker helmed the set of NBC. (Zucker is now president of CNN Worldwide.)
What was only a morning TV show is now a 24-hour multimedia brand, in part in response to the drop in ratings of the main show. “Today” has focused on streaming options and podcasts, among other extensions.