July 15, 2017

This week in TV Guide: July 19, 1969

Well, there's not much suspense about this week's big story, is there? As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the flight of Apollo 11 is one of the most highly anticipated events in world history, the culmination of one of mankind's greatest achievements. What might be just as incredible, though, is the idea that the world will see man's most famous footstep live from the moon. Live! I like to think that had TV been around when Columbus sailed for America, or Peary set off for the North Pole, or Lindbergh took off for Paris, things would have been much the same.

(What's really interesting about all this is that movie portrayals of men landing on the moon - or other planets - seldom ever take TV coverage of the event into consideration. The landing usually takes place in a vacuum of awareness, and what communication there is with earth scientists is done via radio. Even in those situations where cameras cover the launch, they're never factored in to the landing. The idea that the same advanced technology that propelled astronauts to the moon could also allow TV signals to reach from the moon to the earth seems never to have occurred to filmmakers. Either that, or they figured that for security reasons, the public wouldn't be informed of the trip's success until it had already been accomplished.)

"The Epic Journey of Apollo 11," as it was billed on CBS, began with the launch on Wednesday, July 16, and reaches its climax on Sunday afternoon with the moon landing. The moon walk itself is originally scheduled for 2:00 a.m. ET Monday morning, and I remember having been prepared to stay up as long as necessary to see the actual walk. Fortunately, NASA made the decision to move the time of the walk to earlier in the evening; as I recall, they cancelled the sleep period the astronauts were supposed to have, figuring they'd be too keyed up to sleep, although I doubt it hurt that this meant the walk would now appear in prime time.

The coverage provided by the three networks reflects the recognition that this is not just a newsworthy event but a moment of great cultural importance the world over, and it's reflected in the coverage provided by the three networks. Granted, saturation coverage of a spaceflight (TV Guide estimates 31 continuous hours from Sunday through early Monday evening) means you're going to have lots of dead air time; even so, there's a measure of reflection contained in these plans, and I wonder if we'd see the same thing today. According to TV Guide, here's what the networks have in store:

ABC: Frank Reynolds and Jules Bergman are the anchors, along with Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, physicist Robert Jastrow, and possibly an interview with a Soviet cosmonaut, Steve Allen does a medley of songs spotlighting the moon in popular culture, Duke Ellington performs a concerto and James Dickey recites a poem, both in honor of the landing, and Rod Serling moderates a panel of science-fiction writers (including Isaac Asimov) discussing "Where do we go from here?"  There's also a video essay on space travel as portrayed in the movies, with Peter Jennings and Richard Schickel.

CBS: Walter Cronkite anchors with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra. Cronkite interviews former President Lyndon Johnson, an early champion of the space program, and 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke. Bob Hope does a monologue (strange that he isn't on NBC), and there are appearances by Orson Welles (because of War of the Worlds), Buster Crabbe (played Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the movies), Keir Dullea (2001), and satirist Stan Freberg, with his space puppet Orville. A special-effects device called HAL 10,000 will use nine projectors to portray space travel.

NBC: Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Frank McGee anchor the coverage with Gemini IX astronauts Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford. Guests include Nobel Prize chemist Harold Urey, and expert on the origins of the solar system. NBC also plans to have cameras on hand in Denver and Atlanta as telescopes attempt to pick up images of the Apollo spacecraft as it orbits the moon.

Fascinating, isn't it? Reminds me a bit of the coverage we saw during the Bicentennial and the countdown to January 1, 2000. It transcends mere news reporting to celebrate a singular moment in time - a philosophical news story, if you will. I don't mean to suggest that Neil Armstrong's famous first step isn't a historic event in and of itself; it is, and I don't think that anything television has broadcast since (not even the destruction of the World Trade Center) can really compare to it. But it's clear from the coverage that this is about much, much more than that. It's not only the event of an era, but the end of one as well. No longer will the quest to walk on the moon be the stuff of fantasy and imagination. Future flights can be measured in terms of newsworthiness and scientific progress, but the flight of Apollo 11 is different.

You'll recall that President Kennedy's charge to NASA was to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth, so the coverage isn't really complete until Thursday, July 24 when the command module Columbia splashes down safely. The three astronauts are taken into an isolation unit on the aircraft carrier Hornet, and congratulated by President Nixon. Later, they'll be feted in ticker tape parades throughout the country and the world. For people who lived through it, there was nothing like it, and there hasn't been since then. There was much promise that this was the end of one era but the beginning of another; of course, we know today that this was about as good as it got, at least for manned exploration, although the unmanned robots have produced truly glorious results. It's missing something, though - the human element. And when man lands on Mars - not if, but when - perhaps that will be the next great journey. By then, maybe technology will be such that we'll feel like we're standing on the surface of the Red Planet with them.

Here's the opening to CBS's coverage of the Apollo 11 flight.


And here's Duke Ellington performing "Moon Maiden," his composition in honor of the moon landing, commissioned by ABC News and performed during their Sunday coverage, next to the giant lunar module mock-up on ABC's Space Headquarters set in New York.


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No Sullivan vs. The Palace this week; Hollywood Palace is on its summer hiatus, replaced by The Johnny Cash Show, with guests Ed Ames, the Monkees, Roy Clark*, and Joni Mitchell, and Sullivan (a rerun with Arthur Godfrey; Caterina Valente; the Young Americans; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Rodney Dangerfield; and some jugglers and acrobats) would have been preempted by CBS's moon coverage anyway. There's always next time.

*Who's billed as a "comic guitarist", which I think really sells short his excellent playing.

Compared to the moon mission, of course, everything else takes a back seat, but there is other programming. On Saturday night, CBS telecasts the Miss Universe pageant live from Miami Beach (10:00 ET); what do you want to bet the orchestra plays "Fly Me to the Moon" at least once?* Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. CBS presents a special program looking at the religious ramifications of the Apollo 11 flight. Major League Baseball's All-Star Game is scheduled for Tuesday night at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C. (NBC, 7:00 p.m.) Nobody tells the weatherman, though; a tremendous rainstorm roars through the Capital City, flooding the dugouts and forcing postponement of the game until Wednesday afternoon. To date, it marks the last time the All-Star game was rained out, and the last time it was played in the afternoon. And Thursday Tom Jones swings on ABC (9:00 p.m.) with Lynn Redgrave, Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, the Bee Gees, Lulu, and Tim Conway.

*The winner, by the way, is Miss Philippines, Gloria Diaz.

And in future news, it's all good for Joey Bishop - "his show has been renewed well into 1971" by ABC - which will come as a shock to Dick Cavett, whose show replaces Bishop's on December 29 of this year. Seems that TV Guide's source jumped the gun, and Bishop and the network never did agree on that contract. You can read about the spectacular last night of Bishop's late-night show at the end of this article.

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Since New York City has always been the happening place, let's take a look at some of the week's programming on the local stations and see what the Big Apple has to offer.

In honor of the moon flight, we'll look first at the weekend's sci-fi movies, starting with dueling spider movies on Saturday afternoon! WABC has The Spider at 2:00 p.m., while WOR counters with Sombra, the Spider Woman. I think I'll take a pass on those. Saturday night WNEW shows The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, one of those monster-thawed-from-ice-by-atomic-blast movies. The Astounding She-Monster terrorizes the public early Sunday morning on WNHC in New Hampshire, and giant man-eating crabs wreak havoc in the Caribbean in Port Sinister on WABC's late movie. Sunday evening doesn't look any better for Ray Milland than Markham did last week; this time he directs and stars in Panic in Year Zero, about the aftermath of a nuclear attack. It's scheduled for 11:30 p.m. Sunday on WABC, so expect it to be bumped by the moon walk.

Did you know Allen Ludden once had his own talk show? I didn't either, until I saw the listing for his daily program, Allen Ludden's Gallery, on WNEW as well as WTIC in Hartford. It's 90 minutes, as most talkers were back then, and Ludden seems to have had no problem attracting stars; his guests on Monday's WNEW airing are Hugh O'Brien, Chita Rivera, Scoey Mitchell, the Back Porch Majority singing group, and a profile of Kirk Douglas by Rona Barrett.

Joan Rivers is also on the air with her show, or That Show, if you want to be precise, mornings at 9:30 on WNBC and 11:30 on New Haven's own WNHC; her Monday guests (on WNBC) include Phyllis Newman and cooking expert Marcia Morton. And then there's Cesar Romero, whose Cesar's World is on WTIC Tuesday evening at 7:00 p.m.; this week, Cesar tours Leticia, Colombia.

And then there are the ubiquitous ads for WABC's Eyewitness News, featuring their very own "Eyewitnesses": Dell Wade, Melba Tolliver, Milton Lewis, Robert Lape, and "Anchorman" Roger Grimsby, "the man the other Eyewitnesses tell their stories to." If I'm not mistaken, they had another eyewitness around that time, a sports guy named Cosell.

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Finally, before I overstay my welcome for the week, we'll end with something appropriate: a pair of topical movies courtesy of WPIX.

At 2:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon it's the 1950 classic Destination Moon, about the first trip to the lunar surface, starring John Archer, Warner Anderson, and Tom Powers. It won an Oscar for special effects. At 10:00 a.m. Monday, PIX has the 1961 Italian flick The Day the Sky Exploded; "When a manned missile to the moon explodes, asteroids are thrown out of their orbits and sent hurtling toward the earth." Our survival is up to Paul Hubschmid. (Good thing they didn't show that last week.)

I wonder how close they got it?

7 comments:

  1. Being an avid fan of the space program back in the 60's and 70's I can say I never missed a launch from Mercury through Apollo!

    I remember watching this with my mom and being so excited. We both stayed up late to watch the actual Moon walk. This was good television!

    George Everson

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  2. After the mission's conclusion CBS published a very elegant hardcover book that memorialized its coverage of Apollo 11 (titled "10:56:20 P.M. EDT 7/20/1969"), and included not only lengthy extracts from the network coverage but also about 30 or 40 pages of color screenshots. It also has some great details about the behind-the-scenes work, the devices used during the coverage (such as the HAL system that helped display data about the mission), and so forth. It is a fascinating book and I highly recommend it.

    Worth noting, too, that for coverage of the mission CBS News granted an exception to its policies and allowed theme music. CBS News also commissioned a really beautiful animated title sequence, and combined with the special theme music that open is a sight to behold.

    Reuven Frank, who was then president of NBC News, wrote in his memoir "Out of Thin Air" about how the producer in charge of NBC's Apollo 11 coverage put together four prestigious hours of music, poetry, dramatic readings and so forth meant to air live in prime time on July 20, during a planned rest period between the landing itself and the first steps on the Moon. When Armstrong and Aldrin decided to postpone the rest period and move the Moon walk up in the timeline, it meant all of this wouldn't air. The producer videotaped it instead and kept asking Reuven Frank to air it at some point before the mission was over, reminding him they'd brought in a lot of big-name talent and NBC owed it to those people to put their work on the air. Although parts of it were aired to fill time during continuous coverage during the next few days, the whole thing never did, and as far as Frank knew it was forever lost to history.

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    1. I thought that almost all of that entertainment spectacular aired on the evening of July 22nd as a replacement for the rained-out baseball all-star game.

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  3. There are events in the 1960s that seem like a time that is about to happen, rather than a time that is fifty years in the past. This is one of those events.

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  4. There may be another reason for the lack of portraying television coverage of moon landings in films: wasn't the motion picture industry trying very hard not to promote TV at all for a while, considering it an existential threat to theatrical films?

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  5. I believe WBZ-TV Boston aired "Destination" Moon" as a Sunday noon movie a couple of weeks before the Apollo 11 launch.

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  6. Repeats of Rivers' talk show airs weekdays on the Jewish Life (JLTY) network.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!