Ten years ago on a Thursday morning, I was congregating in the famous plaza of Rockefeller Center to interview devotees from The Today Show. I remember meeting a mother and her daughter who had taken a flight from Salt Lake City just to be there, outside the studio looking, to celebrate their 60th birthday of their favorite show. They gave me something indispensable in the media: an overview in the eye of the fans.
Fast forward ten years, and “Today” is about to air another gig on TV, this time on its 70th birthday. It will be quieter this time around, due to Covid-19 restrictions and changing consumer habits. It looks like the top-rated days of Today are long gone. However, it is still a very profitable part of NBC News and an important organization for NBCUniversal as a whole.
“Today” invented the idea of morning television, spurring competitors like “GMA”, “CBS Mornings” and no less than a dozen “Rise and Shine” programs on cable.
Nowadays, television networks and streaming services operate 24/7, but in 1952, breakfast-hour broadcasting was an extreme idea. Television was still a new medium. Local stations usually only show a test pattern at 7am. There was no reason for families to turn on their new TVs in the morning – until NBC gave them a reason by creating the “Today” show. This was a huge problem because once the TV was turned on in the morning, the group tended to stay put – a factor in the amazing rise in video consumption since then.
How is NBC celebrating this anniversary
On Thursday, some of the “Today” hosts visited the Empire State Building. The building was lit up in orange in the evening to mark the 70th anniversary of the exhibition. Co-host Savannah Guthrie was absent, due to her recent positive test for the Covid virus.
Guthrie hosted “Today” from home earlier in the week due to a positive test. She said she felt some “little sniffles, not much more.”
The main NBC event to celebrate the anniversary is a celebration live on Friday, the actual Christmas.
If Guthrie tests negative before Friday, she will be in the studio for the show. Otherwise, you will join from home.
Back in time to the first broadcast
Founding producer Sylvester “Pat” Weaver wanted the new show to simulate radio, as it would be a kind of background noise as listeners prepared for the day. This hypothesis is still valid today. “We cannot and should not attempt to construct a display that will cause people to sit in front of the set and divert their attention to the screen,” Weaver wrote in a note. “We want America to shave, eat, dress, and get to work on time. But we also want America to be well-informed, entertaining, luminous in spirit and heart, and strengthened by inner resolution through knowledge.”
Reading these words several decades later, what stood out to me was the sense that “America” was one cohesive unit, one group that would all watch the same show. Now the country is split between “Fox & Friends,” “Morning Joe,” and dozens of other options.
My other takeaway: Weaver understood, by metaphor of a television axiom, that “people watch people.” Even if you’re only listening halfway down the hall, you want to know and trust the person you’re hearing. Dave Garaway, the first host of “Today,” had a casual style but serious core. Of his often-cited casualness, Garroway once said, “Nobody knows how hard it must be for me to look that way.”
How is the “Today” Show Expanding?
Over the decades, “Today” has featured some of television’s best talent, both on and off camera. Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumble, Katie Couric, and Meredith Vieira were a few of the co-hosts throughout the year. Weaver, the founding producer, went on to run NBC Entertainment entirely. Decades later, genius executive producer Jeff Zucker went on to power every NBC network. (Zucker is now president of CNN Worldwide.)
What used to be a purely morning TV show is now a round-the-clock multimedia brand, in part due to lower mainstream broadcast rates. “Today” focused on streaming and podcast options, among other extensions.