WEAVER, SYLVESTER (PAT)

U.S. Media Executive/Programmer

Sylvester (Pat) Weaver enjoys a deserved reputation as one of network television's most innovative executives. His greatest impact on the industry came during his tenure as programming head at NBC in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There he developed programming and business strategies the other networks would imitate for years to come. He is also remembered for supporting the idea that commercial television could educate as well as entertain, and he championed cultural programming at NBC under a policy he labeled "Operation Frontal Lobes."

Weaver studied Philosophy and Classics at Dartmouth, graduating magna cum laude. After military service in World War II, he worked in advertising at the Young and Rubicam agency. At that time, advertisers owned the programs that were broadcast on network radio and television, and Weaver worked on program development for the agency's clients. This experience prepared him to make the move to network television.

He joined NBC in 1949 to help the company develop its new television network, and held several top-management positions culminating with his appointment as chairman of the board in 1956. During that time he maintained close control over television programming at the network and shaped NBC's entire programming philosophy.

To promote growth in the fledgling network, Weaver commissioned a series of specials he called "Spectaculars." These heavily-promoted, live specials were designed to generate interest in the NBC schedule in particular and the television medium in general. He hoped that families would purchase their first television sets specifically to watch such events and would then develop regular viewing habits. The strategy especially promised to benefit NBC's parent company RCA, which controlled most patents on new receiver sets. Programming events such as the Mary Martin Peter Pan and the 1952 Christmas Eve broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera commissioned for television, resulted from this plan.

While overseeing NBC's growth, Weaver also worked to enhance its power in relation to advertisers. His experience at Young and Rubicam convinced him that sponsors rather than network programmers actually ran the television industry. Because sponsors owned shows outright, the networks had minimal control over what was broadcast through their services. Some sponsors could even dictate when a show would appear in the weekly schedule. Weaver moved to shift this power to the networks by encouraging NBC to produce programs and then to offer blocks of time to multiple sponsors. He developed certain programs such as Today and The Tonight Show to provide vehicles for this practice. Advertisers could buy the right to advertise in particular segments of such shows but would not control program content. Weaver called this the "magazine concept" of advertising, comparing it to the practice in which print advertisers bought space in magazines without exercising editorial control over the articles. His ambition was for NBC to develop a full schedule of programs and then persuade advertisers to purchase commercial time here and there throughout that schedule. Any given program would carry commercials of several different sponsors. Other networks eventually followed the NBC model and by the 1960s it had become the television industry standard, commonly known as "participation advertising."

Weaver took pride in his classical education, and he championed the idea that commercial television had an educational mission. He proposed a series of cultural and public affairs programs for NBC which he promoted under the banner "Operation Frontal Lobes." The goal, Weaver announced in 1951, was "the enlargement of the horizon of the viewer." The campaign included a number of prime-time documentary specials. For example, Project XX was a full-time documentary production unit which make feature-length documentaries on historical events. The Wisdom series consisted of interviews with major artists and intellectuals (Edward Steichen, Margaret Mead). Weaver even required that educational material be mixed into the entertainment schedule. For example, the popular comedy/variety program Your Show of Shows might include a performance of a Verdi aria among its normal array of comic monologues and Sid Caesar skits.

Weaver left NBC in 1956 when it became clear that the network could no longer follow his philosophy of program variety and innovation. His successor, Robert Kintner, pushed the network schedule toward more standardized series formats. Weaver's last major effort at television innovation came in the early 1960s when he headed Subscription Television, Inc., an early venture into the pay cable industry. His effort to set up a cable service in California was blocked by a referendum initiated by traditional broadcasters. Weaver challenged them in court, and the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled the referendum unconstitutional. STV, however, was bankrupted by the process. Although Weaver's cable venture failed, the case helped remove certain barriers to the eventual development of cable television.

-Vance Kepley, Jr.

 


Pat Weaver
Photo courtesy of Pat Weaver

PAT WEAVER. Born Sylvester Laflin Weaver, Jr., in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A., 21 December 1908. Educated at Dartmouth College, B.A., magna cum laude, 1930. Married: Elizabeth Inglis (Desiree Mary Hawkins), 1942; children: Trajan Victor Charles and Susan (Sigourney). Served in the U.S. Navy, 1942-45. Worked for Young and MacCallister, an advertising and printing firm; announcer, writer, producer, director, actor, and salesman, radio station KHJ, Los Angeles, 1932; program manager, station KFRC, San Francisco, 1934; worked for NBC and the United Cigar Company, 1935; joined Young and Rubicam advertising agency, 1935; supervisor of programs, Young and Rubicam's radio division, 1937; advertising manager, American Tobacco Company, 1938-46; associate director of communications, Office of the Coordination of Inter-American Affairs, 1941; vice president in charge of radio and television for Young and Rubicam, also serving on executive committee, 1947-49; vice president, vice chair, president, then chair of NBC, 1949-1956; chair of McCann Erickson, 1958-63; president of Subscription TV, Los Angeles, California, 1963-66; chair, American Heart Association, 1959-63; member, board of directors, Muscular Dystrophy Association, since 1967; president, Muscular Dystrophy Association, since 1975. Member: Phi Beta Kappa. Recipient: Peabody Award, 1956; Emmy Award, 1967; named to Television Hall of Fame, 1985. Address: 818 Deerpath Road, Santa Barbara, California 93108, U.S.A.

PUBLICATION

The Best Seat in the House: The Golden Years in Radio and Television. New York: Knopf, 1994.

FURTHER READING

Baughman, James. "Television in the 'Golden Age': An Entrepreneurial Experiment." The Historian (Kingston, Rhode Island), 1985.

Boddy, William. "'Operation Frontal Lobes' Versus the Living Room Toy." Media, Culture and Society (London), 1987.

Kepley, Vance, Jr. "The Weaver Years at NBC." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), 1990.

_______________. "From 'Frontal Lobes' to the 'Bob-and-Bob' Show: NBC Management and Programming Strategies, 1949-1965." In, Balio, Tino, editor. Hollywood in the Age of Television. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

 

See also Advertising; Advertising Agency; National Broadcasting Company; Sarnoff, David; Special/Spectacular; Tonight Show