Looking Back on the Moon Landing and the Giant Leap for TV Networks

Moon Landing
Universal History Archive/UIG/Sh

On July 16, 1969, Variety ran a package of stories under the headline “Greatest Show Off Earth,” detailing the three TV networks’ fever over the July 19 moon landing. CBS exec producer Robert Wussler predicted “the world’s greatest single broadcast.” Variety called it a “31-hour TV super-special,” running all day Sunday through midday Monday. The networks and four radio companies pooled resources and spent a then-huge $13 million collectively. NBC was handling the action at Kennedy Space Center, CBS at Mission Control in Houston, with ABC assigned “downrange pickups.”

But each network also wanted to plant its own distinct footprint on the moon landing. CBS offered Arthur C. Clarke, Walter Cronkite and Orson Welles (think “War of the Worlds”). ABC had Rod Serling, Isaac Asimov and Marshall McLuhan; ABC also commissioned Duke Ellington to compose a piece of music. NBC had a special hosted by John Chancellor and Danny Kaye, which Variety described as “a rather unusual mating of entertainment with news.” 

And no, nobody even mentioned Stanley Kubrick or questioned the authenticity of the event.

Also taking part in the broadcasts were Van Heflin, James Earl Jones and Julie Harris with dramatic readings, plus poet Rod McKuen and writer Michael Crichton.

Before the actual landing, the three TV networks and four radio networks offered minute-by-minute coverage of Apollo 11 preparations and flight. ABC hoped for a call-in show for viewers to ask questions of scientists and newsmen, but AT&T feared an overload of equipment.

Variety predicted the TV audience for the 2½-hour moon walk would be 350 million-500 million viewers worldwide. Network execs also estimated 125 million-150 million in the U.S. alone, making it the most watched event of all time in the country, despite the fact that the landing was scheduled to begin at 2:12 a.m. ET Monday.

Footage from the moon would be made possible by two Westinghouse cameras: a color camera aboard the command vehicle and a B&W model installed on the lunar module. A signal from the camera on the moon’s surface would travel to NASA’s ground station in Parke, Australia, then to the Pacific satellite.

On July 23, Variety did a post-mortem on the event, with writer Martin Caidin in Cocoa Beach saying, “It was the greatest story of all time and proper coverage demanded the greatest news army ever collected in a single place.”

Caidin estimated 4,000 newsmen from around the world saturated the press facilities of the Kennedy Space Center. Even that number was dwarfed by invited guests. There wasn’t a motel room or apartment available within a 70-mile radius.

The VIP roster included 400 members of Congress and their wives, 40 mayors, 19 governors, most of the Nixon Cabinet, and multiple Supreme Court justices. President Richard M. Nixon wasn’t there, since he had a cold, and NASA flight surgeon Charles Berry expressed concern over germs being spread to the astronauts or members of the crew.

However, VP Spiro Agnew attended, as did former President Lyndon Johnson. The VIP stands were plain wooden-bench bleachers set in an area of scrub grass, with no shade, no backrests and no drinking fountains nearby. The only people who merited cushions were LBJ and Ladybird Johnson. And, of course, all those viewers at home.