April 30, 2011
Wide World @ 50
TV Guide certainly didn't know what was coming; as you see in this close-up for the premiere episode (April 29, 1961, on Channel 9, the Minneapolis ABC affiliate) they didn't even know quite what to call it. By the end of May they had the title right, and it pretty much remained in the same place, expanding depending on the event, for the next three decades.
A milestone, certainly. But one of the great things about perusing an old TV Guide, even one containing a significant program like this, is to see what else you might stumble across. And in this issue, it was something the very next night - a documentary on the upcoming manned spaceflight. The first American spaceflight, that is. Frank McGee, NBC's longtime space correspondent, hosts the Sunday evening program, seen on Minneapolis' Channel 5.
At this point it had been less than three weeks since the Russians had put Yuri Gagarin into orbit, and while this American suborbital flight would not be nearly as ambitious, it was extremely important to a nation suffering from a space inferiority complex. Notice that the announcement of the first American astronaut hadn't even been made public yet; the astronauts themselves knew it would be Alan Shepard, but only knew it would be either Shepard, Gus Grissom, or John Glenn. In fact those were the first three Americans to go into space, and at the time everyone thought Shepard had come out on top - it wasn't until Glenn's historic orbital flight that people realized he had been the big winner after all.
Even though we're expecting the penultimate space shuttle launch this weekend, I think that for the general public, the glamour and drama of space travel probably ended with the conclusion of the moon program at the end of 1972. Wild World of Sports, by contrast, would continue until 1998.