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‘This is Today: A Window on Our Times’

An in-depth retrospective of the show’s magical formula.
/ Source: TODAY

For 50 years Today on NBC has captivated the nation with its winning combination of news broadcasts, rich features, cultural updates, and morning levity. Once hooked, many fans have come to rely on this institution for timely information about themselves, the country, and the world. Now “This Is Today” provides the first-ever in-depth retrospective of the show’s magical formula. Here's an excerpt:

On a chilly New York morning in the winter of 1952, a transplanted Chicagoan with big glasses and a genial manner looked into the lens of a massive television camera and made viewers a simple, straightforward promise.

“We’ll put you in touch with the world,” Dave Garroway vowed. “And,” he added minutes later, “not get stuffy about it.”

That doesn’t sound like much today, when we take for granted that our TV sets will show us anything that happens at any time anywhere on this earth or beyond-and show it to us live. But more than half a century ago, when television was just beginning to find its way in a media world defined, at that point by newspapers and radio, Garroway’s pledge sounded bold, even audacious. Ever since that January 14, fulfilling Garroway’s commitment has been the goal of Today men and women. You may recognize those who have appeared on your TV screen, but hundreds more have worked unseen in NBC News offices, bureaus, studios, and control rooms around the world gathering, organizing, and transmitting the words, sounds, and images you see and hear.

That Today is still alive and well more than fifty years later-despite dizzying and sometimes wrenching technological, social, and political changes-is a testament to the genius of the late Sylvester “Pat” Weaver. As NBC’s chief programmer in the early 1950s-he later served as president and chairman-Weaver created Today and the Tonight show and had a hand in countless other innovations. And by figuring out how to shift control of programs from advertisers to networks, the visionary ad executive-turned-broadcaster laid the foundation for commercial television as it exists today.

In developing Today, Weaver realized that his pioneering morning show would have to accommodate the real-life rhythms of its awakening audience: people gearing up for work, parents getting children off to school, and homemakers catching their breath after the breadwinners and kids cleared out. Like radio, it would have to deliver information people needed first thing in the morning: dependably scheduled, up-to-date news stories, weather reports, and a preview of the day to come. It would also have to communicate with people who were busy dressing, talking, and eating-people, in other words, who had no more than a few minutes at a time to actually focus on their TV screens.

They were radio listeners, really, but Weaver figured Today could convert them into television viewers if it gave them everything radio did-and then something more: moving pictures of news events from around the world, a peek at the workings of a real newsroom and face-to-face contact with a company of engaged and engaging on-camera personalities.

Weaver’s concept remains the essence of Today. And, truth be told, it has proved to be the model for all the other successful morning TV programs that have followed on networks, local stations, and cable channels.

Think of this book, then, not as a history of Today but as a kind of thumbnail sketch of fifty-plus years of history illustrated and illuminated with highlights culled from the Today archives. There are moments of tragedy and crisis; there are moments of triumph and hope. It traces the forces and issues that have shaped our world and looks at some of the performers and artists who have crafted our popular culture. You’ll also hear the reflections and recollections of some of Today’s cast and contributors, past and present.

The documentary record, we should mention, is incomplete. In the rush toward the next day’s program, much of the early material was neglected and lost. Fortunately NBC changed its preservation practices in the 1970s, so the record is more comprehensive after that. Still, readers will surely notice that this book and its companion DVD can’t help but reflect the gaps in the record.

In the end, though, the mission of Today has never been to make history; our job has always been to bear witness to each present day, to offer it to you and to try to make some sense of it on your behalf. On January 14, 1952, Dave Garroway articulated the show’s broader aspirations: “We hope,” he said, “to keep you more free, more informed. Because I believe, as I hope you do, that an informed people tends to be a free people.”

That is every bit as true today as it was then, and all who have followed in Garroway’s footsteps, both in front of and behind the cameras, have tried to live up to that responsibility-without getting stuffy about it.

Excerpted from “This Is TODAY: A Window on Our Times” by Eric Mink and Laurie Dolphin. Copyright © 2003 by Eric Mink and Laurie Dolphin. Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.