Commentary: Apollo 8 broadcasts were rocket fuel for TV news biz


NEW YORK -- It was 40 years ago that the Apollo 8 saga played out on most of the nation's TV screens.

Although mostly forgotten now, in December 1968 there was hardly a set that wasn't tuned to the coverage of the tiny capsule and the three-member crew inside it who were the first to leave Earth's orbit. The Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders was likely the most-watched telecast worldwide to that point.

"There are some moments in the history of space exploration that never lose their impact, and one of them for me are those television transmissions from Apollo 8," said Andrew Chaikin, who wrote 2007's "A Man on the Moon," the definitive story of Apollo. "I remember being 12 years old and being glued to the set. It was absolutely electrifying."

It's hard to imagine today how big a deal Apollo 8 was, with the nation still reeling from a close presidential election, a war in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The U.S. was locked in a dangerous race with the Soviet Union to reach the moon first.

But Apollo 8 was not only a first in exploration, it also was a TV first.

"This was a completely new era, the first time that the public could witness an exploration as it happened. We didn't have to wait for the letters to trickle back from the frontier," Chaikin says. "We were looking at live television from the moon. And on Christmas Eve, when they read from Genesis, it was one of those absolutely extraordinary moments."

Kevin Michael Kertscher, who produced and directed the 2005 PBS special "Race to the Moon" about the mission, sees it through a similar lens.

"You could call it the first episodic reality TV," he says. "It was an amazing piece of television for the time."

Apollo 8's signature TV moment is the Christmas Eve broadcast, which struck the most poetic note in the 50-year history of space travel. It lives on forever in the photo Anders took of the Earth rising over the moon. Not too shabby for three astronauts who fought to keep cameras off the ship.

The broadcasts seem quaint today. The quality is poor. Kertscher remembers his crew spending hours to clean the static from the black-and-white telecasts -- transmitted through 250,000 miles of space -- and trying to adjust the color footage.

"You show that video today to a kid and it looks like ancient history," Chaikin says. "It is from a time long ago and far away."

Quaint too is the wall-to-wall coverage from the Big Three -- and that's all there was in those days. They were the nation's televised touchstones. Anchors like Walter Cronkite explained history in real time.

But almost as fast as space became a ratings powerhouse, interest evaporated after Apollo 11 in 1969.

"People are easily bored. They get used to something in a hurry," says NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree, the only man to cover every manned U.S. mission. The networks received complaints when they broke into regular programming for live updates on the later Apollo missions. Barbree remembers being asked by an editor in New York about what was happening with Apollo 15, the third-to-last moon mission.

"I told him, 'Nothing. They're going around the moon again,' " Barbree says. "Can you imagine? What the hell was I saying?"

It's impossible to tell how many millions of people watched the Apollo 8 coverage in the U.S. But it didn't matter: Less than nine months later, the Apollo 11 lunar landing captured all the attention. It also broke Apollo 8's ratings record.

Only Apollo 13, which went awry and almost cost the lives of its crew (including Lovell), retains a separate identity, thanks to the 1995 movie. There's been little in the past 40 years about Apollo 8 beyond an hour in HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon" miniseries and occasional documentaries including "When We Left Earth" on Discovery and "Race to the Moon" on PBS.

But that doesn't blunt the impact of Apollo 8. It was the perfect drama to cap a tumultuous year, Kertscher says.

"To see us doing this amazing thing, the paradigm shift of looking at the Earth from such a different perspective, it was an absolute sea change."