THE advent of television seemed to offer us the world - all neatly boxed in our living rooms where the family would gather to enjoy various entertainments. Those entertainments grew right out of radio, which had also offered unprecedented access to news and amusement for the majority of Americans - even during the Great Depression and certainly as prosperity slowly returned.
In ``The Best Seat in the House: The Golden Years of Radio and Television,'' Pat Weaver (with the help of Thomas M. Coffey) recounts his participation in the golden years of radio and in the rise of television.
The son of a wealthy roofing manufacturer, Weaver (father of film star Sigourney Weaver) attended Dartmouth College and found his way into advertising soon after graduation. During the 1930s, he worked in a variety of capacities in radio - even announcing the news.
As a young man, he helped rejuvenate a fading radio station, KFRC in San Francisco, discovering early that ``comedy will always be the key ingredient of successful programming, whether on radio or on television. The smart thing to do is to build your schedule around well-placed laughter.... If you associate a product with something that caused you to laugh, you'll be well disposed toward it when you're faced with making a selection.'' Many programs Weaver developed sprang from this philosophy.
Weaver's contribution to both radio and television was enormous. As an advertising executive in radio, he worked with the greats: Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Kate Smith, Burns and Allen, Danny Thomas, and Bob Hope. For television, he developed ``Today,'' ``Tonight,'' ``Your Show of Shows,'' ``The Comedy Hour,'' ``Caesar's Hour,'' and a host of shows that set standards for the infant industry. As television program chief and then as president of NBC, he was in a position to develop network ownership of programming.
As radio came of age, sponsors owned the programs - which were, in part, the offspring of giant advertising agencies. But Weaver had always been uncomfortable with sponsor ownership of shows and planned to steer television toward network ownership of programming. He feared government control of television, too, having been well acquainted with the use of radio during World War II by German, Italian, and Japanese dictatorships. He succeeded in keeping programming in the hands of his network by introducing the multiple-sponsors approach to television. In this way, he hoped programming policies would be determined on a broader basis than the needs of a particular advertiser.
Advertising came of age with radio and television, and Weaver enjoyed all aspects of the business. He developed advertising strategies with as much enthusiasm as he later invested in television programming, though it's clear that his creative priorities lay with the latter.
The most involving feature of ``The Best Seat In the House'' is Weaver's energy, the sense he gives the reader that no matter what task he turned his hand to - even in the darkest moments of his career when he had been foiled by enemies - he always brought his enormous capacity for creativity to bear on the problems at hand.
Weaver mentions a moral dilemma in advertising: Cigarettes were widely used and the health hazards known, if not yet proved, when he helped raise the American Tobacco Company out of the doldrums. It is the only moral questioning that he offers, however. He never questions what television has become, nor does he question whether it has, on the whole, been a good influence on American society.
What he envisioned - TV as a means for ``upgrading humanity'' - seems peculiarly naive, in light of so much current programming drivel and scientific studies documenting the relationship between TV violence and violence on the street.