Pat Weaver dies at 93

Pioneer of NBC, father of Sigourney Weaver

Sylvester (Pat) Weaver, television pioneer responsible for the creation of the “Today” and “Tonight” shows while he was president of the NBC TV network, died Friday of pneumonia at his Santa Barbara, Calif., home. He was 93.

Weaver, father of actress Sigourney Weaver, was prominent throughout the 1950s at NBC and later became a TV eminence grise, teaching and commenting on its development and even dabbling in what were then radical notions such as special pay TV events.

From the start, the tall, patrician-looking Weaver strongly believed in the medium as a democratizing influence, long before global village concepts and the theories of Marshall McLuhan became fashionable. “The grand design of television is to create an aristocracy of the people — to make the average man the uncommon man,” he once wrote.

L.A. native was eldest of four children, a younger brother being comic Doodles Weaver. He majored in philosophy at Dartmouth and was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar. Initially he wanted to be a novelist, but eventually went to work for Young & McCallister ad firm.

In 1932 he switched over to radio, working as a writer, announcer, producer and salesman at L.A. station KHJ. After a brief stint in San Francisco at radio station KRFC, Weaver moved to New York and went to work for NBC in 1935 on a weekly musical show, “Evening in Paris.” That same year he joined the advertising agency Young & Rubicam and was put in charge of planning for Fred Allen’s radio show. By 1937 he was coordinating all the radio programs of the agency’s division.

George Washington Hill, controversial scion of the American Tobacco Co., hired him away in 1938 and made him advertising manager. Weaver took a leave of absence in 1941 to help with the broadcasting of anti-fascist radio to South America for the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs under Nelson Rockefeller. He joined the Navy in WWII and spent two years in command of an escort vessel and then produced radio show “Command Performance” for the U.S. Armed Forces overseas.

He briefly rejoined the American Tobacco Co. after the war, but by 1947 was back at Y&R, where the new medium of television broadened his responsibilities. He was hired away by NBC in 1949 and named VP of television.

The new medium became his passion, and he said he was convinced it was doomed to become a toy “if there wasn’t anyone to whip it into shape.”

He was criticized for trying to push television on America, but Americans didn’t seem to mind. Television sets multiplied as Weaver brought major talents to the medium, including the cast of the seminal “Your Show of Shows,” which ran from 1950-54, as well as “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” which also debuted in 1950 and featured a revolving door of talented comics such as Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope.

He expanded TV to afternoon with shows featuring Kate Smith and Ted Collins and in 1952 created the “Today” show with Dave Garroway; it soon became NBC’s most profitable program. Other moneymakers included the “All Star Revue” and “Tonight,” with first host Steve Allen. But he also introduced opera singers, philosophers, poets and top recording artists to television.

With the permission of the Federal Communications Commission, Weaver conducted the first color experiments in TV in 1953. The network’s first colorcast was the opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti, aired in December of that year. The first regularly scheduled program in color was “The Ford Theatre.” Color all benefited the network’s then parent, RCA, a maker of televisions.

He meanwhile continued his efforts in radio with such programs as Monitor, a weekend news and special events magazine. That magazine concept was also crucial to the early development of television. Rather than have programs created by advertisers, Weaver fashioned shows that were developed by the network and sold time to various advertisers.

NBC’s coverage of the 1954 midterm elections was widely praised and presaged the future of nationwide election reporting.

By December 1953, Weaver was president of the network, and over the next couple of years television expanded to more than 33 million homes. Two years later Weaver was named chairman of the board after being pushed out of the presidency by RCA chief David Sarnoff’s son Robert. After a year of continued friction with the younger Sarnoff, he resigned and started his own broadcast company, then became an advertising executive again with McCann Erickson.

He became head of Subscription Television Inc. in 1963, an early pay TV venture that was clearly ahead of its time, though it was clearly popular within the limited sphere of homes that were wired. Weaver spearheaded defense against various anti-pay TV legislation and eventually won. But the company went into Chapter 11 and was sold in 1966.

Weaver produced a failed “Laugh-In”-type show called “Mad” and then returned to advertising as a consultant for Wells, Rich Greene. He also served as a consultant to Westinghouse, Comsat and Disney in the planning of Epcot Center in Florida.

In the 1980s he also served as an adviser to Communications Satellite Corp.

Throughout the rest of his life, Weaver was an active critic of television’s overly commercial path, lecturing on and forecasting the erosion of the networks to cable and other telecast alternatives. He never gave up on his dream of “cultural” television.

In 1968 he received the Emmy Trustees Award and in 1985 was named to the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame.

His marriage to actress Elizabeth Inglis produced two children, Trajan Victor Charles and Susan Alexandra (Sigourney). He is also survived by five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

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