Science Channel Travels ‘Path of Totality’ to Capitalize on Eclipse Fever

Wed, 07/26/2017
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Cynthia Littleton
Variety

Eclipse fever is building in TV.

On Aug. 21, the first total solar eclipse to cast a shadow across the continental United States in nearly 100 years is set to become a programming event for numerous TV outlets, none more so than Discovery’s Science Channel.

Science is planning a host of “Great American Eclipse” pre- and post-eclipse programming, as well as live coverage of the big blackout expected to begin around 1:20 p.m. ET and conclude about 2:50 p.m. ET. The eclipse should be visible throughout the contiguous states, but the “path of totality” — the places where the sun will be entirely blocked out — will cover a slice of the country stretching from the coast of Oregon to the coast of South Carolina.

“This is the most amazing natural phenomenon that happens for the surface of the Earth,” said Angela Des Jardins, director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium. Des Jardins will be part of the on-air team for Science. To buttress her point, she noted that the circumstances that lead to a total eclipse is akin to the edge of a pizza crust lining up perfectly with a single red pepper flake in the center of a pizza.

She and fellow scientists Amir Caspi (a leader of NASA’s Eclipse Project) and James Bullock (chair of UC Irvine’s physics and astronomy department) emphasized during a session Wednesday at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour that the eclipse opens up a wealth of opportunities for research — from atmospheric temperate changes to its impact on gravity waves.

But from a lay person’s standpoint, the eclipse should be stunning all on its own. The total blackout period will last about two minutes.

“In that path of totality, the moon completely covers the sun. It gets dark in the daytime and you can see the ghostly halo of the sun around the moon,” Des Jardins said. Bullock said there is hope that the event will spark new interest in science for children and youth.

“This is a whole new generation of kids going to have a chance to see this event,” He said. “It’s pretty awe-inspiring to stand in the shadow of the moon.”

The last solar eclipse that came near the magnitude of the Aug. 21 event was in 1979 — which feels like a prehistoric era compared to today’s media environment. Even those who don’t seek out coverage on TV will undoubtedly be bombarded with eclipse images and chatter on social media. “Social media will put this in people’s hands,” Caspi said.

Des Jardins made a point of debunking a longstanding myth that it’s dangerous to look at the sun during an eclipse. Not true, she said, but there are special solar glasses that will help people see more of the activity by projecting the progress of the moon across the sun on the ground. In the big moment, however, the naked eye is the best tool, she said.

The scientists were pressed about their expectations of breathless media coverage — particularly on cable news — about the eclipse. Their response? Bring it on.

“If you’re going to have a natural event to get breathless about, this would be one of them,” Bullock said.