Article first published as Stephen Battaglio on From Yesterday to TODAY on Technorati.
In 2012, the U.S. national TV broadcast network NBC will celebrate that Today, its morning news and talk show, first went on the air 60 years ago in January of 1952. Indeed, NBC’s celebration started a little early in mid-November, with the release of From Yesterday to Today: Six Decades of America’s Favorite Morning Show, a book written by Stephen Battaglio (TV Guide‘s business editor) and published by Running Press. Battaglio, who was granted access to the TODAY show’s archives in order to fully document the rich history of the show, was kind enough to take part in a recent email interview about his 272-page book. The book features a variety of information and photos covering the show’s 60-year history as well as an introduction by current Today show host Matt Lauer.
Did NBC give you full access to its show archives?
Yes. We were able to use their photos. I was able to review past episodes of Today – a lot of fun – and interviews with the personalities that NBC News producers had done over the years. I combined that with my own research and reporting on the show done over my career as a journalist covering the TV industry. I also did a few dozen fresh interviews with the current and past Today producers and cast members.
Personally I think an entire book could be devoted to Pat Weaver, a very important figure in NBC’s history. While I am sure you were already well aware of his role in Today’s formation, I was wondering if there were things you learned about him that you did not know.
Pat Weaver wrote his autobiography a few years ago and always appeared on the Today anniversary shows. He has never been shy about recounting his role as a television pioneer. I think the enduring key to his brilliance was his understanding that live television with personalities who provide a connection and companionship to the viewer could survive the technological changes we’ve seen in television. Sixty years after he created Today, people still want to get up in the morning and have someone they like tell them that the world is still there.
No other morning show ever had a chimpanzee for a host. But I am curious if, in researching the book, did you find there was another host during the show’s history that surprised you?
The chimp, J. Fred Muggs, was not a host. But his arrival saved the program, which was almost cancelled in its first year. I think the surprising aspect of the hosts is that they all possessed distinctive personalities, interesting quirks and diverse backgrounds. They did not all come out of the same mold. That made them fun to write about.
A morning TV news show of this kind had not been attempted before the TODAY show. Are you surprised, despite the trail he blazed in new TV content, that Dave Garroway is far from a household name?
For nine years, few people logged as many hours on television as Dave Garroway. But it was live television. There were no repeats that ran in perpetuity like I Love Lucy. He was not an actor who appeared in classic films that still run on cable TV. He has been dead for 30 years and his career had faded 20 years before that. When you’re not on the air, it’s easy to fade from the public memory. But I think this book will remind or reveal to readers that he was a unique talent and a very unusual guy.
When did the Today show stop having the host doing commercials (a practice done as shown in this photo of Hugh Downs)?
In the mid 1970s, NBC News wanted Tom Brokaw to host Today. He was the White House reporter at the time, and he did not want to do commercials. He thought it would hurt his reputation as a hard news journalist. When he was approached a second time he was told that he would not have to “hold the can” as they used to say, and he signed on.
Given her long history in TV, some people may not realize how pivotal Barbara Walters was to the show, how much do you delve into that?
The book goes into great detail about how Barbara Walters paved the way for women in TV journalism and helped define the skills that every morning program personality needed to have to succeed – the ability to comfortably do hard news and softer entertainment segments. She also had a deep affection for Today, and I don’t think she has ever gotten over leaving NBC.
Not every author can have the full current Today show lineup promoting the book with a signing, how great was that?
What I liked most about it is that it allowed me to experience close up what I wrote in the book. The people on Today understand how much the program means to the viewers and how it’s really important part of their lives. It’s a very intimate relationship unlike any other in television.