NBCU, Virgin Galactic Team Up To Broadcast 3-Hour Space Journey on ‘Today’

In broad deal, NBCU set to chronicle space race using NBC, Syfy, CNBC and other networks

Richard Branson Virgin Galactic NBC Today Show
Don Arnold/Getty Images

NBCUniversal is about to test the upper limit of the atmosphere, or at least its ability to appeal to TV viewers

In a pact that clearly aims to create another universal TV moment like the 1969 telecast of Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the surface of the moon, NBCUniversal and entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have teamed up to televise one of the earliest commercial attempts to take private passengers into space.

During a three-hour live event set to be televised next August on NBC’s “Today” morning show, hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie will join viewers in monitoring Branson and his adult children, Holly and Sam, as they travel aboard SpaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic’s terminal at Spaceport America in New Mexico into space.

It is “a huge undertaking,” said Sharon Scott, president and general manager of Peacock Productions, the NBC News unit that helped orchestrate the deal and will supervise production and preparation for it over the next several months. “We were instantly just fascinated by this concept and now have the ability to work with them on ten months leading up to the launch. We can chronicle every milestone, every breakthrough – the first time the ship goes into space, the first time they release who is going to ride in the space ship – and we will deliver it across all of our platforms.

Under the terms of the agreement, exact details of which were not disclosed, Peacock Productions will chronicle Branson’s journey across various NBCU properties, including CNBC, MSNBC, NBCNews.com, Syfy, and The Weather Channel, among others. A primetime special is expected to air on NBC the night before the launch. When asked about the terms of the deal, Scott said Peacock would be paid for any production work it did, but declined to offer more specifics.

NBC Entertainment last month unveiled a pact with Virgin Galactic and Mark Burnett’s One Three Media to create “Space Race,” an unscripted series that will show everyday people competing for the right to ride on SpaceShipTwo — the second planned flight after the Branson clan’s inaugural voyage.

Virgin Galactic is owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS, an Abu Dhabi-backed investment group. The company has, to date, accepted nearly $80 million in deposits from approximately 640 individuals for a chance to fly in space. The vehicles the company is slated to use are built to carry six customers at a time on suborbital space flights, and allow for a zero-gravity experience with views of Earth before passengers strap back in and glide down into the atmosphere.

A person familiar with the situation said the agreement would not shut out other media outlets and news organizations that might want to cover the event and the excitement leading up to it. NBCU, however, would have direct access to a feed of footage inside the ship during its run and would be able to talk to Branson and his children while they are in the vehicle. Virgin Galactic did talk to other TV networks, this person said, but determined NBCU was best suited to help the company follow through on its mission of generating interest in the concept of commercially available space flight.

Details are still being hammered out, but Scott suggested documentaries on activity at Virgin’s New Mexico Spaceport could be appropriate for several NBCU networks, along with features on the atmosphere for Weather Channel. And what about a show about the celebrities said to be vying for a seat on the Virgin flight for the E! network? “There are a lot of stories we can do pre-launch, obviously,” she said.

For NBCU, the pact can help advance two important corporate goals. Since coming on board as CEO in 2011, Steve Burke has made a point of trying to get NBCU’s various properties to work together more fluidly both in terms of promoting the programs the company runs and selling the advertising behind the shows. What’s more, the presence of the space flight on “Today” could give that program an edge as it strives to climb out from the number-two position it has come to rest in since ABC’s”Good Morning America” began in April of 2012 to beat the Peacock program for audience viewership. In September, “GMA” celebrated a full season of ratings dominance over “Today.”

A televised voyage by SpaceShipTwo would mark the latest in a series of live “spectaculars” increasingly gaining favor at the nation’s TV outlets. These events, which include Discovery Channel’s recent broadcast of aerialist Nik Wallenda’s June, 2013, tightrope walk across the Little Colorado River outside the Grand Canyon, tend to draw the broad audience that has become more elusive for TV programs in an era when viewers have a new array of digital video to sample. The events also tend to generate tons of reaction on social media, which can attract more people to the event and the TV hoopla surrounding it.

Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 skydive from 24 miles above the earth is another example, though that event, sponsored by Red Bull, was watched mainly via YouTube, which live-streamed a feed from cameras attached to the Austrian daredevil’s capsule as well as from mission control. The New York Times reported that the live audience for the stream at one point swelled to as many as eight million people.

Peacock Productions has previous experience with such stuff, having handled production duties for the Wallenda walk for Discovery. As part of that work, Peacock found itself negotiating for land use with Native American tribes, building a road that would allow cameras and crew get to the remote location where the high-wire walk was to take place and working through a complex array of logistics involving time zones and broadcast schedules, not to mention having a contingency plan in place in case a tragedy took place during the broadcast.