September 1980 - Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos: A Personal Journey' Airs

Carl Sagan on Cosmos
Carl Sagan pilots the Ship Of The Imagination in the 1980 program, 'Cosmos: A Personal Journey,' one of the most-watched programs in the history of public television. | Photo: KCET Archives

On September 28, 1980 -- KCET's 16th anniversary -- the first of 13 episodes of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos: A Personal Journey" premiered on PBS, which would become one of the highest-rated programs in the history of public television, and undeniably raised the station's reputation as a producer of public broadcasting programs.

The concept began in 1976 when KCET's Director of Program Development Greg Andorfer began discussing with KCET Program Director Chuck Allen the idea of an astronomy and space science series he called "The Heavens."

While watching "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" one night. Allen came across a guest with an uncanny penchant for reinterpreting intricate scientific jargon into elegant and memorable statements that the common person can easily conceptualize and appreciate.

He was Dr. Carl Sagan, a Cornell astronomy professor and renowned author who had also played an important role in the development of NASA's Mariner and Viking space missions.

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"With that man, we could do it!" exclaimed Allen, who soon informed KCET President Jim Loper. The two greenlit Andorfer's astronomy series project, which was later renamed "Man and the Cosmos."

Sagan had formed a production company, Carl Sagan Productions, which aimed to share the famed scientist's enthusiasm for science and discovery to a larger audience. Once Andorfer approached Sagan, he gladly accepted. After inking a deal with Dr. Sagan, the project took off from the launch pad. The collaboration was written in the stars.

"We were approached on a number of projects [by several parties], but by far the most interesting was an inquiry tendered by KCET," Sagan once wrote in his memoirs.

The late 1970s were a prime era for space and science: the sci-fi blockbusters "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" captivated moviegoers, and NASA's next unmanned space mission, the Voyager program, which Sagan also helped develop, was readying for its launch.

With Sagan as the writer and host, BBC documentary producer Adrian Malone was tasked to be the executive director and fellow British producer David Kennard was named as director and senior producer. Sagan, though inexperienced in television writing and production, soon learned the tools of the trade quickly.

Production began in 1977 after the British Broadcasting Corporation and West German film studio Polytel International signed on as co-producers of the project, and the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) agreed to be the primary funder.

Production lasted three years, utilizing over 30 artists and shooting over 50 miles of film shot in over 12 countries. Actors were casted to portray historical scientific figures in re-enacted scenes shot in authentic locales. The latest special effects of the day were employed to present conceptualized scenes from planets and galaxies, and even creative use of simple visual effects were employed, like the reversed footage of thrown glass pieces to simulate the rings of Saturn. KCET also acquired six new TK-47 cameras, which helped make the station the most technologically-advanced production center in all of the PBS network.

Towards the end of the project, the final scenes featuring Sagan's "Ship of the Imagination" which took audiences to distant galaxies and faraway epochs were shot at Stage B in KCET's Sunset Boulevard studios. In late 1979, the project was finally renamed "Cosmos."

Costing $8 million, an unheard-of figure for a public television production at the time, "Cosmos" became more than just a science show, it became a cultural phenomenon. It was initially conceived as a major effort to popularize science and to serve as an effective tool for teaching it in a more palatable way to the general public. It was a product that made abstract and difficult concepts easy to understand. Even Sagan's oft-mocked line from the show, "Billions and billions of stars" became an instant pop culture catchphrase.

Aside from the historical and astronomical lessons learned, Sagan also shared his perspective on current social issues of the day, namely, nuclear warfare. He dedicated large parts of the program's last installment, "Who Speaks For Earth?" warning of the dangers of nuclear weaponry.

"Cosmos" became the highest-rated public television program until the 1990 Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War." The book and videocassette versions of "Cosmos" were best-sellers as well, and related learning materials were made available to educators. The program was a phenomenal success, in both educational and financial aspects. When Sagan died in 1996, "Cosmos" was named as his greatest achievement.

The original "Cosmos" series inspired a 2014 updated version, "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" which aired on the FOX network, produced by comedy writer Seth MacFarlane, hosted by author and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and was endorsed by the Sagan Estate.

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