All the conventions we take for granted on television today - from the formalized game show to the monologue on the talk show - were begun by a group of innovators who had no idea they were setting precedents.

People such as Dick Cavett, Jackie Gleason, Phyllis Diller, Johnny Carson, Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen and Carol Burnett were the pioneers on that mesmerizing little black box.

Diller was one of the first female comics to hit it big anywhere. Today, at 90, she recalls, "I didn't mean to be a trailblazer. I just needed a job, and my talent was being funny. And I didn't even recognize that fact. It was my husband - Sherwood Diller - who was the person who kept insisting that I become a comic. And I kept pointing out to him that there were five children involved here. And he said, 'We'll send them home.' I said, 'I can't. They're ours.'

"And we argued about it for two years. That was our longest argument - a two-year argument, culminating in the fact that one day I said, 'OK.' Then my problem was, how do you become a comic? And I called the Red Cross in San Francisco and I said, 'I have a show. Where do you want it?' They said, 'The Presidio.' So that's where I did my first show."

Diller, and many others like her, will be celebrated in a four-part PBS documentary series,

Pioneers of Television

, set to premiere on Jan. 2, airing Wednesdays. (It will be on WHYY TV12 at 8 p.m.) Each one-hour episode focuses on a different genre: sitcoms, late-night, variety and game shows.

Tim Conway, so hilarious as one of the repertory zanies on

The Carol Burnett Show

, was still a scrub in the Army when he became an avid fan of

The Steve Allen Show

. "I was defending Seattle, and would watch the show, like for two years ... every night. And I thought, 'If I ever was on television, that's what I would want to do, what these guys are doing' - Don Knotts and all the rest of the guys."

Tony Orlando was a fresh face on the scene with his backup singers Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent (known collectively as Dawn) when he snagged a guest spot on

The Tonight Show

.

"I was a nervous wreck, and Sammy Davis Jr. was saying to me that two shows made him throw up before the show out of nervousness: one was the Academy Awards and doing

The Tonight Show

. It was that important, to do

The Tonight Show

. And when I went on and finished my song, I remember this man [Davis] coming up to me, recognizing that I was scared to death, not knowing what the outcome of the performance would be, walking up to me saying, 'You know, your career is going to go a long way. You did very well,' encouraging me. Same thing with Tim Conway. Same thing with Carol Burnett, who is always showing encouragement, and Betty White."

The nimble-witted Dick Cavett set the tone for TV interviewers who were to follow. Cavett remembers Jack Paar, who started

The Tonight Show

. "Jack was the most neurotic, dangerous, brilliant, weird, unsorted-out, fascinating personality of my lifetime on television," Cavett says.

"And the great Kenneth Tynan said about Jack once, 'Even if he's sitting there with Cary Grant, you watch Jack, afraid that if you look away you might miss a live nervous breakdown on the screen.' And that was true. That danger quality - nobody's ever had anything like it."