CBS Coverage of Apollo 11

We decided to focus on CBS’s coverage of Apollo 11 because of it’s solid number one rating for network evening news in 1969.  We also chose to focus specifically on television coverage because Americans relied more on television than newspapers for information during that time, according to a Roper poll conducted in the mid 1970s.  On the actual day of the event, June 20, 1969, 94 percent of all homes with a television were tuned in, and this is not including the vast number of people who gathered in public places to watch the event.  Since 1969, the Apollo 11 mission has been referred back to as the prime example of how space exploration should work.  Apollo 11 has come to represent NASA’s “glory years;” even China has revived discussions of the American moon landing during their attempts to participate in space.

The coverage of the event provided an outlet for Americans during a time of devastation in Vietnam and heightened tension here in the United States.  Apollo 11 offered adventure and suspense, and the astronauts became American heroes as they explored the new, unknown frontier.  Neil Armstrong was compared to Charles Lindbergh and John Glenn, and CBS wanted the average American watching at home to aspire to be like the astronauts on the mission. The media led Americans to believe that conquering this new frontier would save the US from a communist empire, and that the new rocket and space technology would allow the US to defeat the Russians in the space race and at home in the fight against communism.

President John F. Kennedy was a firm believer that the launch should be televised.  Walter Cronkite, a space enthusiast and fan of space exploration, was the perfect person to cover the coverage on CBS.  He has been called “the fourth astronaut,” and viewers even wrote to NASA asking them to make Cronkite an honorary astronaut.  Cronkite was on air for 31 of the 34 hours of continuous broadcast of Apollo 11 on CBS, coverage that won him two Emmys and made him a semi-finalist in NASA’s Journalist in Space program.

Arbitron ratings show that 45 percent of the national audience watched the CBS coverage, while 34 percent tuned into NBC and 16 percent to ABC.  But all three networks worked together in order to share the financial burdens that came with having live coverage: each station invested over 1.5 million to broadcast the mission. Besides the expenses of the technology, the stations had to hire experts on the subject to explain to the public what their news anchors could not.  Because of the collaboration, the lift-off footage was the same on all networks; what was different were the anchors’ descriptions.

CBS attempted to distinguish itself by using a unique image projected against the backdrop called the opening storyboard. They also understood the importance of having everything planned to the minute.  A new special events unit was even created to plan the broadcasts that dealt with the found guests to explain scientific material, collected background information, provided simulations of the flight plan, etc.  The producers realized they needed to illustrate unusual laws of physics, such as showing how a spacecraft must slow down in order to speed up while in space.  CBS also had a lunar surface model and a 7 ft. long conveyer belt created so that they could simulate an orbit of the moon’s surface.  Neither ABC nor NBC had such a contraption.

CBS received their information about the mission and about space in general from a variety of sources. They consulted books and newspaper articles pertaining to the subject and contacted universities, museums and observatories to explain to them the details of the scientific data. The direct communication between CBS and NASA also helped the consistent flow of news.  Telephones were installed that blinked when NASA had new information about the launch.  But the relationship between NASA and CBS has also been criticized, and Cronkite has also been condemned for being a “cheerleader” for NASA.

CBS’s main goal with their coverage was to provide hope during a time when the news was filled with the tragedies of Vietnam and assassinations, poverty, inflation and race riots at home.  The coverage of the moon landing was not only a distraction from this news, but was also something that everyone could come together on as it was seen as an accomplishment for the entire world and was part of the journey towards obtaining world piece.  This “peace” theme became a recurring theme on CBS, and Cronkite emphasized that the mission’s purpose was to learn about Earth and therefore about ourselves.

Below is a segment of a CBS broadcast from July 16, 1969:

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