By Danny Tyree
Now here’s a wake-up call: on January 14, NBC’s “Today” program turns 60 years old.
For the past year the producers have been leading up to the milestone by soliciting viewers’ favorite memories of the show, whether it be the mutual respect of Jane Pauley and Tom Brokaw, a stunning admission by one of society’s movers and shakers or Barbara Walters bribing LBJ to lift Hugh Downs by his ears for reporters. (No, wait: false memory.)
I suppose my own most vivid memories would include: watching a music video of Billy Joel’s do-wop ditty “The Longest Time”; naming the calico cat we adopted in 1993 “Kittie Couric”; and tingling with excitement each time raspy-voiced fitness guru Denise Austin visited the show.
I’m sure others will have warm recollections. When the chemistry on “Today” is right, it is a daily gathering of friends who can help us sort out the day’s events, friends who can leave us feeling that life is worth living, friends who can harbor us when our wife finds out about our Denise Austin crush…
Six decades ago “Today” was testing uncharted waters; executives wondered if anyone would really watch TV in the early morning. How times change! Now NBC execs wonder whether anyone will really watch TV in prime time. (New NBC prime time slogan: “I hope them there peacocks is edible.”)
One of the venerable show’s strengths has been its name: pithy, direct. “Today” is much punchier than the working title “The Rise and Shine Revue.” And Congress thought “Today” should have been called “Let’s Kick This Down The Road Two or Three Months.”
Much of the show’s longevity owes to its being tabloid gossip fodder, with highlights such as Bryant Gumbel’s leaked 1989 memo criticizing other “Today” personalities, the tumultuous reception of Deborah Norville and the backstage catfight between guest Donald Trump’s hair and panelist Gene Shalit’s mustache.
“Today” has secured its status with lifesaving campaigns such as Katie Couric’s on-air colonoscopy in 2000. The competition has scrambled to compensate with ill-conceived knockoffs such as “Dandruff: the IMAX Experience.”
“Today” has benefited from the give and take as on-air personalities emerge from the news division, the entertainment division, the sports division. The one stumble was the intrusion of the sales division. (“So, Prime Minister Thatcher, what do you say to the critics who think you could best deal with the British trade unions by announcing a cooling off period — powered by refreshing New Coke?”)
Be sure to watch for spectacular stunts surrounding the “Today” anniversary. I understand that all the surviving centenarians saluted by former weather anchor Willard Scott will assemble in one spot — and undergo a full body search by the Federal Aviation Authority.
“Today” has been #1 in the morning show Nielsen ratings every single week since the week of December 11, 1995. Of course nothing lasts forever. ABC’s “Good Morning America” is gaining ground and CBS is launching a much ballyhooed replacement for “The Early Show” on January 9.
But I trust the “Today” tradition will continue through war, recession and social upheaval. When the last earthlings blast off for the colonies on Mars, there will be a holographic Al Roker to make their day a little brighter. (“Here’s what’s happening in your neck of the woods. What IS happening in your neck of the woods????. That creature…AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!”)