Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Sylvester Weaver

Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, former president of the National Broadcasting Company, creator of such television programs as Wide Wide World, Today, and Tonight, talks to Wallace about television, management, advertising, and the social function of television.

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Guest: Sylvester Weaver

WALLACE: This is Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, one of the great creative forces in the brief history of television. Formally President of the National Broadcasting Company, Mr. Weaver created “Wide Wide World,” “Today,” and “Tonight” and he originated the television spectacular. He now questions whether television is fulfilling its role in the democratic society. He says, “The television set will become like a jukebox in the corner of the room to keep the kids quiet.” We’ll find out why in a moment.

ANNOUNCER: The Mike Wallace Interview, presented by the American Broadcasting Company in association with the Fund for the Republic, brings you a special television series discussing the problems of Survival and Freedom in America.

WALLACE: Next to working and sleeping, we Americans spend more time watching television than doing anything else. What we see on television – the dramas, the comedy, the newscasts and the documentaries – they all help to shape the way we think and feel and act. Tonight we’ll try to find out how we’re being shaped and by what. Our guest, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, former President of the National Broadcasting Company, now a television consultant, recognized as one of the most creative minds in the industry. Mr. Weaver, first of all let me ask you this. Several years ago, when you were head of NBC, you wrote a memo which said in part, “Television must be the instrument which prepares us for progress into tomorrow’s good society or steels us to fight for our democratic way of life.” How well do you think that television is living up to that ideal?

WEAVER: I’m disappointed in what’s been happening in the last couple of years.

WALLACE: How, specifically, is it failing?

WEAVER: I think it’s moving from open forums to closed forums – it’s lacking balance – it’s, it’s really reducing its overall mission to doing nothing but some news and largely a story-telling medium. That is, all the shows are really either game shows or story-telling shows.

WALLACE: And its function should be what – rather than that?

WEAVER: Well, it should reflect as a communications medium, the whole richness and – and pluralism of our society. In other words, we should have all the magic of live performance in the New York theater, we should have the great issues in the documentaries and telementaries presented – we should have all of the people passing across our sets. It’s a port you know, through which you can look out on the entire world. But if you aim it only at a – at a film projector and show the cans out of Hollywood, together with some game shows that can be presented cheaply and get pretty good audiences on a commercial value, you are degrading the service, and I’m afraid that’s what’s happening.

WALLACE: Whose fault is it?

WEAVER: Well, of course no matter which group I discuss, I’ll be speaking of my closest personal friends, so I guess I can just start making enemies from the top. But I’m afraid, as a former advertiser, a former agency head of the radio and television department, twice – and network man, twice – both in early radio and television – I know the needs of the different units, and I’m afraid that I must point the finger at the managements of the television networks.

WALLACE: The managements. Why the managements?

WEAVER: An advertiser spends his money to sell goods. His agent in not – his agency – is, is his agent. That is, they are not free to do any particular responsible role – although they have a very positive and affirmative influence, I think. But, basically, the needs of the advertiser do not involve any ability to balance programming. They have specific needs. The agency cannot actually run the schedule. Although I just say in radio we took the ball away from the networks and did a fair job, but not anything like the potential that radio offers. In television, I’m afraid that the only force that can balance programming and give us what we should have in the home and be responsible for the influence that the set has over the people it reaches, is the management.

WALLACE: In a recent issue of Television Guide, TV Guide, Ed Murrow places the blame elsewhere. He says, “Look at our recent “See It Now” show on radioactive fallout. Because it was not sponsored, we had only a limited Sunday afternoon network, instead of having a larger audience at a better time.” And Mr. Murrow blames the advertising agencies, which he says are reluctant to buy shows that don’t pull a mass audience.

WEAVER: Well, it is certainly true that you can take the position that if the management of television will only program those things that get big audiences and that can be sold commercially, that the advertiser can share part of the blame. But we have already had on television a whole range of experiments of commercial sponsorship that proved that you can get advertising support for fine things and for information programs and for controversial things. They involve certain formulas – problem solving formulas- where you start with the real needs of the advertiser and you try to solve the problem of protecting his interest while at the same time giving the public a balanced diet of programming.

WALLACE: Well of course this is the nub of the issue. It is possible to give the public a balanced diet of programming which will include the public affairs shows, the news shows, the documentaries, the controversial shows, and at the same time, serve the needs of the advertiser who doesn’t want to offend anybody – who searches, we are told, for bland things, that will make people happy, and make friends for their products.

WEAVER: Well, not all advertisers search for bland things. We’ve had, I think, in television, in the live dramas, all of which will be off the air, except for two on CBS, and when I left NBC, in the fall of ’56, we had eleven live hour dramas on NBC alone. All gone now – or will have gone by this summer. We have a change going on in the program schedule that reflects a retreat before what we knew when we started in 1949 that the advertiser wanted. In 1949 they wanted game shows and cheap shows. They didn’t want to spend any real money, but management is supposed to overcome those things and get what you think is the right thing in – as far as television is concerned. Now in terms of public affairs programming, we built the telementary series. We were less successful here, but we were able to find clients who would present telementaries that did have a certain element of controversy in them, and they presented them at night in pre-empted time on NBC and got big audiences and very favorable, overwhelmingly favorable results. In other words, it can be done. Ed Murrow was on at 10:30 Tuesday night for several years and sponsored.

WALLACE: And is no longer there –

WEAVER: But why?

WALLACE: Well that’s what I would like to know.

WEAVER: Well, I – I just can’t believe that he was not there – that there wasn’t a solution, a more intelligent solution than putting him on Sunday afternoon once a month.

WALLACE: Perhaps the issue boils down to this – you talk about Ed Murrow – CBS Vice President Richard Salent, in a recent speech said this, Mr. Weaver, he said, “We’ve let ourselves – meaning the networks – we’ve let ourselves get pushed into agreeing that public interest really means that kind of program in which not much of the public is really interested.” He says, “Let’s admit we’re in business to entertain. If we do that, perhaps that will end this attempt to make us over in the image of the British Broadcasting Company, but with advertisers.” What about that?

WEAVER: Well, I’m sure that he would like to withdraw that. At least, I would think he would. You, you can’t really have in your hands, the power that television has, in this country, in this time of crisis, and be agreeable to solving the problems by letting it, letting it become the jukebox in the corner of the room to keep the kids quiet. And just piling one crime show on western and game show – moving your news out of network time, as has now been done by all three networks. And gradually abdicating any responsible role on a – a whole series of assumptions about the public. The American public is a hundred and seventy million different people with different interests, different aspirations, different backgrounds. But you can gather most of them for great attractions of many kinds. You can get hits that have very high quality in them, as hits in all show business have had high quality, not low quality. You can do special things in which most Americans have had no experience with at all, like the ballet, where at NBC we got thirty million viewers to “The Sleeping Beauty” ballet. We couldn’t have done that if we said we were entertaining the public. Because you wouldn’t put on a ballet – I doubt if there were three million people who had ever seen a ballet.

WALLACE: Well, you say that television has an important social function that it’s failing to perform properly. Since our most important job right now, probably, is to survive and remain free, let’s try to focus, if we can for a while, on that problem. What, Mr. Weaver, do you believe television should be doing in the field of news and current affairs that it’s not doing now to keep us as a people informed and properly concerned?

WEAVER: I think we should be having a – a great important report to the nation at least once a month by each of the networks, at night, in – in premium time – that is – network time. I think we should have a news service that really spends a lot of money in developing a coverage of this country and everything that happens in it, live and with tape, that is, far beyond what we are presently doing. I think that when you, that beyond the information programs and there should be all sorts of informational telementaries, that we should be going into the cultural field and presenting all the good things that we know people, when they have a chance to learn about, will become interested in. Their tastes upgraded, their standards elevated.

WALLACE: Let’s stay in the news field for just a minute. What about the reluctance of the networks to permit their news commentators to editorialize. Do you feel that there is sufficient editorial comment on television currently?

WEAVER: No, but I’ve always felt again, that commu – that television is a communications instrument. Frankly, I’d rather have what Walter Lipman has to say than most of the television commentators, if they will pardon me, another group of my close personal friends. I think that we should use television to bring the opinions of the men who have done enough, said enough, to have a stature and a respect by most thinking people regardless of – of their – of the shift of their opinions from left to right. In other words, just the – to use the right to editorialize to let somebody write an editorial who may not have the stature of most of the major reporters and commentators on our scene, is less important it seems to me, than to use the mechanism of television to bring into every home in this country, the product of the best minds on the situation as they see it.

WALLACE: Harvard professor W.Y. Elliot, has written that there might be real merit in congress passing a law requiring television stations to devote at least half hour in premium time, each evening, for political discussion, preferably by debate. What’s your feeling about that?

WEAVER: Well, I’m a – I’m usually against the law stepping in to try to solve our problems. I don’t think that that really is the way that they get solved. Of course in this case, a half hour political show undoubtedly would mean no rating at all on whichever station had it. Whereas under the impact of a dedicated management, solving problems, you will come up with information shows that do get ratings. I’ll – I’ll point again to the ones we had on NBC that reached thirty – forty million people. You won’t do that by putting on a show every week at the same time that everybody finds out is pretty dull. There are other ways that you do it.

WALLACE: According to the New Yorker magazine article about you back in 1954, you once said that for the good of everybody, television must tackle what you called “great issues” – “great themes”. Now perhaps we’ve been talking about some of that, although in that particular piece you did not say what they were – what, what do you think that they are?

WEAVER: Well the first – there are many, but there are several vital ones right now in which television it seems to me, under a dedicated management can be the catalyst, or the driving force, and the most important element. First of all most people, I don’t think, fully appreciate what’s going on. That is, that we are not only in a revolution, but that it is a good revolution. That all the trouble we’re having comes from the fact that we will not any longer blind ourselves to the unnecessary human suffering and misery on which most societies have been based. And are still based in most countries today. The American society, having its political equality, and the American dream that started back when the country started and electrified the whole world, is still going on and getting stronger all the time, if we don’t fail it. We have economic abundance now in this country, which strengthened our political equality, and we have the beginning of social equality; that is to say, really fewer and fewer second class citizens; so that you can have a family, and have any goals at all for the children. In other words, there is almost nothing that the children have to feel is forbidden to them. Now, this is just not true in any other society with a few exceptions, like Canada, in the world, or in history. Television – an adult medium that gives a balanced diet, that has a charge to make people learn about the history of mankind and the arts and the cultures- a real, fine television instrument – can’t help but accelerate this march into this future.

WALLACE: Well, that – what you say makes sense. The only thing – the thing that comes to mind, is this, television is a business. It is a business that needs a profit to continue to operate. Are you perhaps not saddling it with too much social responsibility?

WEAVER: I – the – of course the record is very clear as far as I’m concerned. We made an awful lot of money at NBC Television, starting back in ’51, when I was – and I started running in ’49, and I’m sure they’d love to have the profits I made today. I don’t think- I think that a business must be an upward-going business, and that when you try to not only program down, but you try to solve everything on a business basis, you’re liable to get into some rather difficult things. Let me explain what I mean. You build a show for the heavy viewer center, to get just a rating, as they’ve been doing now. You’ll get pretty good ratings, and you’ll make pretty good sales, and then all of a sudden the advertisers and the agencies will find out that the light viewers aren’t viewing. And then the slightly light viewers aren’t viewing, and then that while the rating is there, the people at the set are drifting away, and the number of people at the sets are going down, and that while the parents won’t fight the kids anymore at 7:30 or 8 o’clock to make them watch a show acceptable to the whole family, such as we used to try to get , but rather will drift off and just let the kid, and maybe one person reading, stay in the room. All these things affect commercial vitality. They affect circulation, circulation is what you sell – what you buy. As this comes about, and the service is degraded, its actual appeal becomes less, because accumulative audiences are lower. Result: the rates break. And they’ve broken already. I think that’s pretty well known in the business.

WALLACE: Then what you’re suggesting is, that not only must there be more statesmanship, if you will, more social responsibility in television management that there is currently, but you’re also suggesting that – that businessmen in television don’t really understand their medium as well as they might, and the future of their medium.

WEAVER: Well, I certainly am saying exactly that, and have right along. I’ve been saying right along that unless you understand advertising and it real uses, and unless you keep the uses for all advertisers who have national problems solved by innovations and patterns – not the radio formula that everybody’s drifting back to, but the things that we did at NBC: the special audience uses, the prestige uses, the in and out, the magazine concept, all this stuff that you – instead of having a broad base of support, you limit it, you narrow it. And that’s true of circulation: if you don’t appeal to the light viewers, you lose them. So that all you business factors do go down – no question about it.

WALLACE: Till now we’ve been talking about what television can do to strengthen our society, help preserve freedom, but to do this, of course, television must have certain freedom itself, freedom from censorship, from pressure groups, from fear of tackling a serious controversial issue, perhaps offending some people. In your career as a television executive, what restrictions on freedom have you seen?

WEAVER: Well, I haven’t seen very many, although you mentioned one to me before we went on the air, so I guess we do have some sort of controls. I’m aware of the pressures as an advertiser and an agency man. As I said earlier, you’re in business to sell goods, and you’re not going to go out and offend people. But the groups of people who try to have their way with the managements – that is, the special, organized groups – are just groups that must in large part be fought, because most of them are – have a very limited viewpoint, that is, they’re so over concerned about a stereotype of some kind, that I think they’re in error. And I think the men - the networks are and have and will continue to resist those pressures.

WALLACE: Well, now, let’s be a little specific. The South, for instance, is very sensitive about the race issue; many religious groups will oppose portrayal or discussion of what they consider to be touchy subjects; various groups bring pressure to bear – and even perhaps justifiably- on the network, and this works to water down the network product. The network wants to protect its sponsors, and again, the sponsors simply do not want to offend various groups.

WEAVER: Well, well, there are two parts though. I mean, the sponsor part I have explained. The other part, the pressure group part, I’m aware of some of it. But as head of NBC from ’49 to ’56, I have very few if any positive recollections of any attempt made by the pressure groups to influence us where it was sufficiently important to pay any attention to it. I mean, I knew we had all kinds of kicks; I mean, you’re hearing from everybody all the time about something. You know, you – you – lawyers don’t want lawyers made in the villain’s role, and national groups don’t like this or that, you know…..

WALLACE: Mr. Weaver – Mr. Weaver – The New Yorker, October 1954, tells of your job at Young & Rubicam producing The Fred Allen Show. It said, “What particularly endeared Pat Weaver to Fred Allen was his agility at fending off or side-stepping the crippling three way censorship that the sponsor, the advertising agency and the network were forever trying to impose. “It was fearful,” said Fred Allen, “but Pat fought the censors like a pioneer fighting Indians.” So you must be aware of…..

WEAVER: This is the third kind of censorship, really. See, we’re talking about the advertisers who are afraid of offending people. We’re talking about the pressure groups who are trying to make you not have the villain a banker, a lawyer, or anybody else, as far as I can find out – no villains. The third censorship that I fought with really was comedy censorship. I mean, the comedy department – the continuity acceptance department at NBC back in twenty odd years ago, in ’35 and ‘6 – would find – read meanings into lines that, believe me – but I used to go and say, “That’s not dirty” – that was essentially my role at Fred’s…..

WALLACE: But Mr. Weaver – the fact remains, doesn’t it, or am I being …. Well, the fact remains, doesn’t it, that there is censorship that permits full discussion of certain moral issues, certain religious issues, certain racial issues, within drama and in discussion programs on television – certain religious issues.

WEAVER: But, but I would say, really, that is not one of the key issues of television, at least not to me. For instance, “The Open Mind,” here in New York, has covered some absolutely wide open subjects – I wouldn’t even mention them on this program.

WALLACE: Let me ask you about this kind of censorship. Last year, again, CBS Television interviewed Nikita Krushchev and Marshal Tito. There was immediate reaction from Congress. One Congressman offered a resolution that television reporters who wanted to interview communists should first submit their questions to the Secretary of State for approval. Another Congressman said that Ed Murrow should explain to the American people why he did not put what the Congressman considered “tougher” questions to Marshal Tito.

WEAVER: Well, we still have a division, I’m afraid, in the country, between those who believe in the open society, who want a freedom in the marketplace of ideas, who are perfectly secure in their belief that the people, when they are given information of all kinds, have enough judgment – enough common sense and intelligence – to be right. And the Nikita Krushchev broadcast was, I thought, a splendid thing, for which CBS deserves tremendous credit, and they should do it much more often.

WALLACE: Who, in the final analysis, has got to fight the people who do want to impose censorship upon television, that is not … I was about to say, “that is not sensible censorship,” but who it to say what is sensible censorship? Who is to fight it – does it again become the function solely of network management?

WEAVER: Network management is the only group, really, that has the – that has the central position. While they must get support from their advertisers and their agencies, and I’m sure they will, for any sensible kind of arrangement. After all, they all really want a much better television service than they’re getting, and they’re certainly saying so. But still, it has to be the network management.

WALLACE: Well, now – up to now you have said in various ways that television perhaps is not fully answering the needs of the people, of the country. Do you expect the major figures in television and the networks to change their ways, as you’d like to see them?

WEAVER: Well, as a rule, major figures change only under pressure, not - not from persuasion. And so I really think they probably will not change their ways, that their ways will have to be changed for them through pressure of competition, and that is the American way of life. Competition to give the people now through the country who have had an exposure to the magnificent, wonderful, marvelous kind of a new miracle society that we’re moving toward, through television. As it shrinks its coverage, as it reduces its service, as it no longer brings the excitement and glamour of the Broadway theater and the coverage of the whole world into the home and the little towns and the big cities, the people – together with the great cultural things too – I think the people will reach out and want that material. They’ve got a taste of it, they know it’s there, and they’ll want it. There are ways they can get it. If the network locks up the television set, and says, “OK, so many westerns, so many crime shows, so many game shows, and news in station option time, and we’ll throw them some bones on Sunday afternoons, and that’s good enough for them” – first of all, I don’t think – actually, I think in time that those managements will be changed, of course. But in the mean time, the competition – the pressure – on the networks will come from other ways of distributing this same kind of program material. And there are other ways of doing it – outside national television. Pay television is one way – another way is through the theaters themselves, there are ways of doing that which are too technical to go into here. But I think competition will once again move into the vacuum created as the networks abdicate certain areas of culture and information that they have been in, and some new enterprise will move it and take over.

WALLACE: Pat Weaver, I surely thank you for coming in and spending this half hour and unburdening yourself. I sincerely hope that your good friends whom you have assaulted in number in not by name will look at you with even renewed respect for you speaking your mind in this fashion. When television fails to honor its responsibilities, says Sylvester Weaver, the real losers are not the networks but the television audience. We are the people whose time is squandered, whose sensitivities are dulled. This condition, Mr. Weaver suggests, will continue as long as the public tolerates the uncomfortable distance between television’s product and television’s potential. Stay tuned now for a run down on next week’s interview. Till next week, Mike Wallace, good night.