That’s my friend Dennis Degan, senior video editor for NBC’s Today, when he came to visit me in Winder. He’s standing next to a camera he worked with the most, an RCA TK44B. While admiring the old ’70s-era peacock on its side, Dennis mentioned he once had a great satin jacket with that very logo, but it got lost or stolen a long time back and wished he still had it. It was the only NBC jacket he ever had.
I told him I had one and would give it to him, but only if he promised to wear it to work, and he had to send me a photo to prove it. He delivered on his promise, as seen below. By the way, the cameras are Sony 1500 HDs with the studio build-up kits.
Above is a shot of the Today set in the RCA Exhibition Hall on January 14, 1952, the morning the program first went on the air. Host (or “communicator”) Dave Garroway is standing in front of his desk welcoming viewers to a new concept in television. Below is a shot taken during the program’s first half-hour. Television pioneer – and my friend – Frank Merklein is behind the RCA TK30 to the right. NBC cameraman Howard Katzman also worked that first Today show, and all the rest, for 16 years.
Today is one of Pat Weaver’s great ideas, and like so many of them, lives on as a legacy to NBC Television’s first president. Today was the first show of its genre and it was seen live only in the Eastern and Central time zones, broadcasting three hours per morning but seen for only two hours in each time zone. Since 1958, Today is tape-delayed for the different time zones.
In 1996, NBC started feeding all four continental time zones from New York using Tektronix Profile video servers. With the final conversion of Broadcast Operations Control to high definition completed in 2009, Today is now seen in HD on network feeds live in the East and delayed for the three later time zones in the continental US.
For many years Today was a two-hour program, from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. in all time zones except for Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. Virgin Islands, until NBC expanded it to three hours on October 2, 2000. A fourth hour was added on September 10, 2007.
Above is the NBC Broadcast Operations Center on the second floor of 30 Rock prior to its 2009 HD conversion. Here you see the center of the “front deck” with controls for all 40 channels of NBC’s output feeds. Channels 9 through 12 (left to center) are the four time zone outputs for NBC’s regular standard definition feeds. Text displays indicate the status of each channel. Picture monitors at the top show the outputs of each channel while the lower monitor displays a received return of the respective channel for transmission assurance. Audio bar graphs similarly indicate the status of audio for each channel.
The Today program first originated from the RCA Exhibition Hall on 49th Street in a space now occupied by the Christie’s auction house, just down the block from the current studio. The first set placed a functional newsroom in the studio, which Garroway called “the nerve center of the world.” The barrier between backstage and on-stage was virtually nonexistent. Garroway and the on-air staff often walked through the newsroom set. Glimpses of camera crew and technicians were a frequent occurrence, as were off-screen voices conversing with Garroway. Gradually, machines and personnel were placed behind the scenes to assemble the news and weather reports, and the newsroom was gone by 1955.
From that very first morning, the big storefront window attracted onlookers. But as Today gained popularity, the window went from being a curiosity to an attraction. During intervals when recorded music was played, the in-studio cameras would often turn and do slow pans of the faces outside. Often people would bring signs with a message for family and friends watching back home. Sometimes Garroway would go out and talk to some of the folks outside, as we see him above doing on a sunny morning in March 1957.
After a complaint from Philco that staging Today in a streetfront studio provided RCA an unfair advantage in marketing its products, Today moved out of the Exhibition Hall, broadcasting its first program from Studio 3K in the RCA Building on July 7, 1958. Soon after, most portions of Today began to be videotaped the prior afternoon, with the only live segments being Frank Blair’s news updates. Although this arrangement allowed more flexibility in scheduling guests, who were no longer tied to Today‘s early hours, the change was mainly an accommodation for Dave Garroway, who was facing exhaustion and health issues. This practice continued until Garroway left Today in July 1961.
On July 9, 1962, Today began broadcasting from the Florida Showcase, a glassed-in storefront at 61 West 49th Street at the ground level of 30 Rock, leased by the Florida tourism board. The program would originate from the storefront in the morning, then cameras and sets would be stowed before the storefront opened for regular business.
This arrangement lasted until September 13, 1965, when Today moved back inside the NBC studios. Not only did the move back to a regular studio simplify matters, but it allowed Today to go all-color. NBC couldn’t justify allocating four huge and expensive color cameras to the Florida Showcase.
For the next twenty years, the show occupied a series of studios on the third, sixth, and eighth floors of 30 Rock, notably Studio 3K in the 1970s, Studio 8G (adjacent to Studio 8H, home to Saturday Night Live) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and finally Studio 3K from 1983 to 1994. Today moved to the current street side studio (Studio 1A) on June 13, 1994, just east of the former RCA Exhibition Hall, providing a link to the show’s 1950s origins. In this 2014 shot, note the temporary barricades that are set up each morning for the fans who gather outside.
In 2006, Studio 1A underwent a major renovation to prepare for high-definition broadcasting. While a new set was readied that summer, the program originated from a temporary outdoor studio in Rockefeller Plaza. It was the same set NBC used at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, in 2006 at Torino, and it would be re-used for Beijing in 2008.
Here’s Today‘s “Summer Stage.” While Studio 1A was being completely refurbished for HD in the summer of 2006, Today was produced from this outdoor stage on Rockefeller Plaza in front of the GE Building.
On September 13, 2006, Today moved into its brand new set. The new studio is divided into five different parts on the lower level. It includes the interview area, the couch area, the news desk, the performance/interview/extra space area, and home base, which is where the anchors start the show. A gigantic Panasonic 103-inch plasma monitor is often used for graphic display backgrounds in the Satellite studio upstairs on the same level as the kitchen set.
The blue background window treatments (or shades) seen in the opening of the show in home base move up and down to allow a view of the outside from the home base. The screen is used for many things, but the main use for it is to prevent TV viewers from seeing early morning darkness outside when their own (later delayed) time zone may be in full daylight. Another reason for raising the screen is to shield TV viewers from outside visitors holding distracting signs during serious show segments.
Below are seven photos showing two different Today set dressings and all the major “areas” like the news desk, conversation sofas and performance area for bands or kitchen segments. All the cameras are SONY HD models, mostly 1500-model ENG/EFP size cameras in the buildup sleds and hard-bodied HD 1000s in the final two shots. Take a look at that cool jib camera mounted on a Vinten Fulmar ped. To get a real education on the new Sony cameras and systems, please see the Conan section of the Tonight Show History.
Over time some minor changes were made to the set, including the elimination of the “news desk” in 2013 in favor of a larger anchor desk with room for all four anchors. On August 16, the program left Studio 1A while it underwent a month-long renovation. The newest set configuration has a “home base” platform that can spin 360 degrees, new decor in the “sofa area” set, and the “Orange Room” area for social media.
One byproduct of the 2013 set renovation is an attraction for tourists. When the new “Shop at NBC Studio” opened inside 30 Rock in 2015, the anchor desk that had briefly served on Today became part of the store’s attractions. Visitors can sit at the desk for a photo opportunity.
Today anchors started out as “Communicators.” Creator Pat Weaver envisioned a person whose responsibilities would go beyond the bounds of traditional sit-down news anchors and wanted well rounded, curious and authoritative hosts. Although the “Communicator” nomenclature has since dropped out of favor, the job remains largely the same. The principal anchors/hosts of the show have included:
- Dave Garroway (1952-1961)
- John Chancellor (1961-1962)
- Hugh Downs (1962-1966)
- Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters (1966-1971)
- Barbara Walters and Frank McGee (1971-1974)
- Barbara Walters and Jim Hartz (1974-1976)
- Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley (1976-1982)
- Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel (1982-1989)
- Bryant Gumbel and Deborah Norville (1990-1991)
- Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric (1991-1997)
- Katie Couric and Matt Lauer (1997-2006)
- Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira (2006-2011)
- Matt Lauer and Ann Curry (2011-2012)
- Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie (2012-present)