December 5, 2018

TV Guide and the space race

SOURCE: CBS
Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by the space program, particularly manned spaceflight. It is, therefore, a pleasure to present to you Tom Rednour, who's in the process of doing some terrific research on how the space race played out in the pages of TV Guide. I think you'll enjoy the fruits of his work, including the excellent illustrations. Take it away, Tom!

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I'm in the process of researching TV Guide and how they covered our space missions. Mitchell asked me if I'd write a short article for "It's About TV." Here, then, is a very brief look at the subject at hand.

TV Guide and the Space Race went hand-in-hand. From Alan Shepard's first 15 minute ride to the final 12½-day mission of Apollo 17, TV Guide kept us up-to-date with scheduled mission close-ups and articles.

Project Mercury was our first effort to put man into space. With all the unknowns, scheduling missions was tentative (at best). Trying to convert military-grade weapons-delivering missiles into man-rated boosters took a lot of time and effort. Weather played a significant role, too. Alan Shepard's first flight (MR-3, Freedom 7) was delayed several times, before finally taking off on May 5, 1961. In fact, all the Mercury missions were delayed or scrubbed from their originally scheduled dates. The first sub-orbital flight was "announced" by TV Guide in the TV Teletype section (3/11/61):


To let viewers know what would be happening during Shepard's suborbital flight, the magazine printed a two-page article in the April 29th issue, "Space Age Spectacular." It described the flight plan and how the three television networks would cover the event. The lead paragraph even noted the uncertainty of the launch date (and astronaut—the three candidates were mentioned at the end): "If all goes according to plan, an astronaut at Cape Canaveral, Fla., will make history one of these days by becoming the first American launched into space. Thanks to TV, millions of Americans will have a front row seat. (emphasis mine)"

The same effort was made for our first orbital flight with John Glenn. Originally scheduled for mid-January, the mission (MA-6, Friendship 7) didn't launch until February 20th. TV Guide printed a similar article about the details of the mission and the planned television coverage ("Television's Greatest Show," 1/13/62). "Barring unforeseen delays, astronaut Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr. will star next Tuesday, Jan. 23, in what may be the most suspenseful and most talked about event in television history."

After Glenn's successful flight, David Lachenbruch authored a 3½-page article ("Live—From The Moon," 4/28/62) on what we can expect from our adventures into outer space—in addition to manned flights (and unmanned lunar probes), he looked forward to improved weather forecasting, orbital satellites sending back pictures of the cosmos, and global television by satellite relay. What a future!

David Wolper produced two independent specials about outer space in the early 60s: Race For Space (4/11/61) and Project Man In Space (5/9/61), both narrated by Mike Wallace. Wolper would also do Race For The Moon in 1965. (Note: IMDB lists different years for the first two shows. These are directly from the magazine, but as non-network shows, they could have aired on different dates in other cities.)

The networks fueled the race whenever they could, via regularly scheduled in-depth news programs (Twentieth Century, Frank McGee Reports, ABC Scope, etc) and national evening news shows. They also produced special program to help explain how things worked and what was planned for the future, such as: "Why Man In Space" (CBS, 4/27/61) and "Astronauts" (NBC, 4/30/61). One program of note during the Mercury years was this ABC News special, "60 Hours To The Moon," with newly-crowned hero, John Glenn as a featured guest (4/29/62, St Louis):


The rest of the Mercury missions yielded little in scheduled TV Guide coverage. Occasional letters from viewers praising network coverage and mentions in For The Record or The Doan Report. For the last Mercury mission in 1963 (MA-9, Faith 7), The Doan Report noted that television would be tried out—it did not work out well and the networks did not use it (5/11/63):


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By the time Project Gemini (our two-man spacecraft) started flying in the spring of 1965, launch dates were much more accurate, leading TV Guide to provide a half-page mission Close-up and programming reminder boxes in the listing section and this rare integrated listing (3/23/65, Cleveland):


There were still occasional delays and scrubs during the Gemini years. The first two Gemini missions went off without a hitch. Gemini IV's last-minute plan to include a spacewalk was not included in the Close-up and was covered by the networks in simulation. When NASA released film footage of Ed White's adventure, all three networks aired specials (not listed in TV Guide).

Network live coverage of space missions used to be (mostly) live from liftoff to splashdown. Once the launch vehicle left the pad and the cameras followed it into the clouds, the commentators were left to ad lib and use models to show what was happening during the mission. If there was a launch delay, there wasn't much to do but wait it out (=$$$$). This type of coverage came to a head after Gemini V's scrub on Aug 18. Hours of nothing, as this For The Record pointed out (9/4/65):


Live coverage of splashdowns finally appeared on our TV sets for the Gemini VII/VI-A flights. TV Guide was mighty impressed by the event (For The Record, 12/25/65):


Surprisingly, there were no Close-ups for the last two Gemini missions (XI and XII). For the last Gemini mission, TV Guide printed an article about how the networks coverage at The Cape was handled (11/5/66):


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The Apollo Program, with lunar exploration the goal, got off to a terrible start. During a pre-flight test on the launch pad on January 27, 1967, the crew (Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee) were killed when a fire raced through the Command Module. This put the program back about a year and a half, but yielded a much better spacecraft.

Apollo 7, the new first manned mission, got a low-key send-off with TV Guide providing only one programming reminder box for each of the three mission weeks (no Close-up). However, the crew did provide the world with the first live television broadcasts from a spacecraft, as noted in this Doan Report (10/26/68):


1968 was a pretty tumultuous year—assassinations, riots, Vietnam war protests, but was "saved" by NASA's most audacious mission yet—orbiting the moon in December. The mission would be the first manned Saturn V, the first test of the Deep Space tracking/communications network, and the first time humans would leave Earth. TV Guide noted that spectacular television will be happening around Christmas (Doan Report, 12/7/68):

tracking/communications network, and the first time humans would leave Earth. TV Guide printed a rare two-page by-lined program article describing the mission (12/21/68):


Of course, the big event was the actual landing on the moon in July, 1969. Networks planned continuous coverage for the landing and exploration (CBS would be "live" for 31 hours, starting on Sunday, July 20). The TV Guide issue of July 19 featured a cover illustration depicting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin working at their landing site. Neil Hickey provided the details in the lead article, whilst Walter Cronkite penned an article on the history of space travel, from Jules Verne to today. Full-page Close-ups were provided for both weeks (7/12 and 7/19). CBS and NBC aired previews of this historical flight (both on 7/15/69, NY Metro):


Viewers of the unprecedented coverage were impressed, annoyed, and amused (8/9/69):


TV Guide editions from the area where astronauts grew up often showed a listing for locally produced shows, like this from the South Ohio edition (7/19/69):


For the last three lunar missions (Apollo 15-17), an electric car was added that would allow greater exploration. For Apollo 15, TV Guide featured an article ("Gotcha," 6/19/71) that explained the Lunar Rover and the camera (operated from Mission Control) that would let us back on earth explore the moon with the astronauts. Apollo 16 rated a cover and another long article by David Lachenbruch in which he described that the EVAs would be in prime time—unfortunately a technical issue delayed the lunar landing by almost six hours, thus pushing the EVAs into daytime programming (4/15/72):


The final lunar mission had limited TV Guide coverage—only Close-ups in three consecutive issues (12/2, 12/9, and 12/16/72). The ABC network was the only one airing a special about Apollo 17 ... and a look ahead to Skylab (12/4/72, NY Metro):


It's depressing in hindsight how poorly the last mission to the moon was covered by the networks. Viewer apathy and Christmas programming curtailed live coverage of the three moon walks, all scheduled by NASA to be in prime time. CBS, for example, only aired a mix of live and taped highlights for their nightly 11:30PM update show. They did remain on the air to the end of the third EVA so as to cover Gene Cernan's closing remarks. But, no live coverage of Ron Evans' deep-space EVA or the press conference, both on the return leg.

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After the Space Race was over, TV Guide would publish a couple of articles about those years that were tied-in with currently airing programs or events. Jules Bergman's article "The Reluctant Astronaut..." was printed for the splashdown for Skylab 4 (3/2/74) and Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan's article about being a "space hero" in the issue highlighting the CBS mini-series "Space" (4/13/85).

For the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Apollo 11 shared a cover with Cindy Crawford and the editors presented us with 8 pages of history and special program information (12 shows about Apollo 11 or space history!). Part of the programming was ABC reliving the landing from the original broadcasts (7/19, 20/94, Denver):


Over the years since 1972, PBS and other networks have presented many space race-related documentary programs, and TV Guide was there to help us find them. Among them: TBS' "Moonshot" (1994), The Discovery Channel's "When We Left Earth" (2008) and this 4-part PBS series, "Spaceflight" (1985), narrated by Martin Sheen (5/8/85, Worcester):


In 1998, the Tom Hanks production of "From The Earth To The Moon" aired on HBO. The six-week, 12-part docu-drama mini-series was well received by the space enthusiast community for its technical achievements as well as telling the history in a (mostly) straight forward manner (and it won three Emmys). TV Guide printed a five-page article previewing the series, a great Rousch Review, and this box (4/4/98):

All-in-all, it was a pretty exciting time, those years between 1961 and 1972 when we first reached for the stars. And TV Guide was there to help us see it all.

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Wonderful article, Tom, and I really enjoyed the TV Guide illustrations. I started watching ABC's Apollo 11 anniversary coverage on YouTube, and hours and hours later I'd made the journey all the way back to how the networks covered Alan Shepard's flight. And I enjoyed every minute of it! TV  

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for giving me some "airtime," Mitchell.
    A lot of the preliminary research has been done. Next would be spending weeks in Miami and Houston reading TV Guides via microfilm (yeeesh!).
    If any of you TV Guide fans out there recall any unusual listings, like the locally-produced Neil Armstrong program, please let me know via Facebook. There is no way to look thru tens of thousands of magazines for one little piece!

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    1. It was my pleasure, Tom. Terrific research, and a fascinating article. I'll do some hunting through my own issues.

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  2. I enjoyed this immensely, Tom. In fact, I remember seeing/reading some of this since my mother religiously bought a copy every week.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!