This coming Monday, August 21st, is the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to pass through a large part of the United States since 1979 and the first coast-to-coast American total solar eclipse since the Woodrow Wilson administration.
The narrow zone of totality crosses from Oregon to South Carolina. And many eclipse observers who can afford it and can get the time off will travel to the area. As predicted, the airlines have jacked up their fares substantially. Other observers will drive to the path of totality. Even if they get to the path ahead of time, in most cases, they will have to drive quite a bit more to dodge cloud cover.
If lots of eclipse observers do this simultaneously, there will be huge traffic jams on the highways reminiscent of what happens with those mandatory evacuations that they have for coastal storms. But, aside from the photo illustration, this post will concentrate on the other traffic jam – the one nobody talks about as well as how effective a possible remedy would actually be.
It has been known for quite some time that NASA-TV will be having quite a bit of coverage of this event. Sounds like a good idea. But due to the fact that very few, if any, cable services and only one satellite network carry NASA-TV (the reasons for this will be the topic of a future post), this means that NASA-TV is pretty much an Internet-only TV channel. This works under normal conditions, but is a major problem for events like the eclipse. For those who are a bit unfamiliar with how the Internet works, NASA-TV uses web servers to put their content online. And these servers can only handle up to a certain number of people hooking up to them to view the content. As the number of people viewing increases, the performance of the server in delivering the content deteriorates. If the number gets high enough, it malfunctions. Historically, this has happened to NASA quite often during major events. Not surprisingly since their computer hardware, like everything else, was put in by the lowest bidder on a government contract. While this isn’t too bad for rockets as the engineers at those contractors work with physical things and they generally do a reasonably good job building rockets, when it comes to computers, those people are a different breed. In physical engineering, it is common practice to build things a bit stronger than they actually need to be so there is some reserve capacity and also to cope with the unexpected. However, when it comes to web servers, computer people tend to go with the minimum capacity for the job. It would be better if they followed what I call “The Roebling Rule” (named in honor of the Roebling company that built the Brooklyn Bridge). They insisted that, if a part on the bridge was supposed to support one ton, it had to be able to support six to ten tons. As a result, the Brooklyn Bridge is a sturdy structure that is still around today. Another company built a similar bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, but was told to keep the budget down. Due to the corners that were cut, the bridge had to be replaced years later at enormous cost.
The other online eclipse coverage sites also suffer from the small server problem. The Exploratorium in San Francisco has done eclipse coverage in the past and has had problems. Compounding things are their rather amateurish production skills.
On top of all this, those people who do not have broadband Internet or have metered bandwidth (only so many gigabytes per month) will have problems accessing the online coverage.
If only there was a way to get video coverage of the eclipse that didn’t depend on bandwidth and server issues and can handle any number of viewers… wait, such a technology does exist and we have had it for years… television!
While this eclipse is well suited for television coverage as it does pass through quite a few cities and towns in the United States, the response from the mainstream (referred to hereafter as “lamestream” to use a term coined by Jim Kurdyla of Facebook fame) media has been extremely underwhelming. The remainder of this post will discuss the TV eclipse options known to me as of the moment of this writing. Some of this information may be subject to change. Here goes…
One would expect that the lamestream broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS) would have an interest in this. Sadly, that interest appears to be rather small.
ABC: This network was probably the first national broadcast network to announce eclipse coverage. The show will feature Sara Haines, Rebecca Jarvis, T.J. Holmes, Ginger Zee, Matt Gutman, David Kerley, Nick Watt, Adrienne Bankert, and Eva Pilgrim. I suppose if you crammed all their astronomical knowledge together, you might get something equivalent to an entry-level amateur astronomer. There are reports that some affiliates will go above and beyond this.
CBS: The national network seems to be taking the wimpy way out on this one. They will only be having coverage online. Some affiliates, mainly those along the path of totality, may take matters into their own hands. One reason given by some wags is that CBS doesn’t want to preempt their daytime programming at eclipse time. This consists of two daytime dramas (News flash: Daytime drama is a dying genre) and “The Talk” Guess they don’t want to preempt “The Talk” or it might get Les Moonves in trouble with the wife at home.
Fox: Unknown. They might decide to leave it up to affiliates.
NBC: Evidently realizing what ABC is doing, NBC will be doing a one-hour national show as well. It will be hosted by Al Roker, Lester Holt, and Dylan Dreyer. Not ideal, but it is better than CBS and Fox. Wonder how these astronomical lightweights will manage?
PBS: Some PBS stations (not all) will be carrying a one hour program titled “Total Eclipse Live”. I have no further details on it. But, later that evening, PBS will show its talent for after-the-fact coverage of astronomical events with a special episode of “Nova” that will incorporate some footage from that day’s eclipse. This is a rather rapid turnaround since it usually takes a few weeks at least for the “Nova” crew to put together something on an astronomical event. As with the other networks, some affiliates might do something on their own.
Eclipse coverage is a lot like the Emmy awards in the fact that cable channels trounce the broadcast ones.
The Science Channel: This network is going to cover the eclipse completely in a program called “The Great American Eclipse”. And in a departure from what the commercial broadcasters are doing, this program will be hosted by actual astronomers. And, if that isn’t enough, there will be a recap show that evening.
The Weather Channel: The one channel on just about every cable system is doing quite a bit of coverage on eclipse day. Their special “Total Solar Eclipse” will feature coverage from all over the eclipse track as well as from a ship off South Carolina. And they are prepared. In the event of bad weather at any location, NASA-TV coverage will be used as backup.
Of course, this information may be subject to change between now and the eclipse. So, if you can’t see totality or are clouded out, keep an eye on the TV listings. But, if you are where the eclipse is visible, don’t forget to see it for yourself (using proper safety methods).