“When The Today Show started in the morning, every station manager in the country objected to it because they said, ‘who’s gonna get up that early to watch television?’”- Former NBC Executive Michael Dann
It was certainly a revolutionary premise for its day. Back in 1952, networks did not broadcast programming in the wee early or way late hours of the day, so when NBC executive Sylvester “Pat” Weaver wanted to do a weekday morning show from 7-9 a.m, he encountered more than a few skeptics. Yet on January 14, 1952, Today (that’s the program’s actual name, not The Today Show) went live for the very first time. Sixty years later, Today is now one of many morning shows, and consistently ranks number one in its time slot.
The program was designed to give viewers everything they would need to get a jump on the day ahead. Host Dave Garroway (a DJ and former host of Chicago’s Garroway-at-Large) breezed around the large studio, showing newspaper headlines from around the world, chatting with newsmen Jack Lescoulie and Jim Fleming, giving weather reports, conducting interviews, and showcasing trends of the day. The original format was similar to that of today’s program; the microphones have changed quite a bit, though. Garrroway wore a huge lavalier mic, something akin to the creature breaking out of Kane’s chest in “Alien.”
Hugh Downs, a writer/newsman and later one of the hosts of Today, recalled Dave Garroway’s easy-going style, which set the tone for the program:
Today was originally panned by critics and enjoyed a meager following, but the tides began to turn with the addition of a co-host for Garroway. Realizing that children watching the program would be a way keep the dial tuned to NBC, in 1953 Today introduced simian sidekick J. Fred Muggs, a chimpanzee, as Garroway’s on-camera foil. With the addition of Muggs, Today began to take off.
Today writer/producer Charlie Andrews described how the addition of J. Fred Muggs altered the show:
Dave Garroway anchored the program from 1952-1961. After Garroway, John Chancellor held the post (1961–1962), followed by Hugh Downs (1962–1971). During the early years of the program, one, and only one, member of the cast was a woman, known as a “Today Girl.” Estelle Parsons was the first to fill the role, followed by Lee Meriwether, Helen O’Connell, and Betsy Palmer. Actress Florence Henderson was the fourth “Today Girl” – and recalled her experience covering the program’s lighter fare in her 1999 Archive interview:
Barbara Walters was a “Today Girl,” too, and a writer, and in 1974 became the show’s first female co-host:
Katie Couric also held the co-host seat, from 1991–2006, next to both Bryant Gumbel (1982–1997) and Matt Lauer (1997-present):
Other anchors of Today: Frank McGee (1971–1974), Jim Hartz (1974–1976), Tom Brokaw (1976–1981), Jane Pauley (1976–1989), Deborah Norville (1990–1991), Meredith Vieira (2006–2011), and current co-host Ann Curry, who was promoted to the seat in 2011.
The airtime for Today now far exceeds the two hours/weekday with which it debuted. Today now airs weekend editions, and since 2007 the regular weekday broadcast is now four hours, with co-hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford anchoring the final hour. Since the end of 1995, Today has remained the number one morning show on television, and in 2002 the program ranked #17 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
Turns out people will watch television in the early morning hours.
Click here to watch what remains (the filmed portions) of the very first episode of Today from January 14, 1952.
Watch Today’s special programming on a look back at the show’s 60 years here.
- by Adrienne Faillace