August 16, 2017

The 1984 Eclipse on TV

Pub Notes

Here they come and there they go—trust me.

On May 30, 1984, Athens experienced an almost-total eclipse of the sun. The New York Times reported that 99.7 percent of the sun was covered by the moon in Atlanta, so we were pretty close to totality here.

At that time, we had Observer Television, as an adjunct to the Athens Observer weekly newspaper. The TV station was adjacent to the Observer offices, where Bar South is now on Lumpkin Street, near Washington.

Nobody had the protective glasses that are common now, and pundits advised watching the eclipse through smoked glass—not that anybody had ever seen smoked glass or knew where to get any or how to make it. I always vaguely thought you had to smash a Coke bottle (yes, they were glass then) and hold the broken bottom over a match, but I never went to that trouble, since it wasn’t like eclipses were frequent enough to have to worry about it.

We hit on the idea, of course, that Observer TV would televise the eclipse, and you could safely watch it on your television without risking damage to your eyes. We advertised it and even sold a few ads. The local elementary schools thought it was a great idea that saved them from having all those kids outside looking directly at the sun.

We even went out in front of the office and interviewed passersby about their reactions to the event. Some were hilarious but, alas, are lost to the ether.

The Times described the scene in Atlanta thus: “The temperature dropped six degrees, flowers closed their petals, dogs howled, pigeons tucked their heads under their wings as if to sleep and the whole city was bathed in a kind of diffused light, not unlike that accompanying the approach of a severe storm.

“As the light from the Sun passed through the leaves of trees, it projected onto the sidewalk pavement tiny wedgelike images of its own crescent silhouette.”

That’s what I remember most about the 1984 eclipse, all those tiny shadows on the sidewalk—the sun’s selfies.

Observer Television in those days had to be wired in. We had no ability to cover events live unless we could run a wire back to the transmitter that put us onto the cable system that “broadcast” our signal.

Our location was such that we were close enough to run a wire to City Hall and become the first to provide live television coverage of the city council meetings. Other than that, our live coverage was pretty much limited to those programs we generated in the studio on Lumpkin Street, mostly talk shows.

There was one other big-time sporting event for which we were perfectly located: The Twilight Criterium bike race was run on the downtown streets that circled our block and a couple of others. This meant that we could cover the bike race without having to run our wires across the race path.

The racers flew right in front of our office and made the curve onto Washington Street for the uphill climb to Thomas Street. All we had to do was set up our camera and catch them as they passed.

That wasn’t good enough for Observer Television. We had to have our camera at the finish line over on Clayton Street. All it meant was that we had to string some wire over the rooftops between our studio and the end point, so why not?

Well, one answer to that question was that the farther we extended our reach, the more we were exposed to the possibility of technical glitches.

Nevertheless, Observer TV announced the first locally televised running of the Twilight Criterium, and we promoted it heavily. We sold ads to sponsor the broadcast, and we lined up our coverage. As the clock ticked down to the starting gun, it became evident that in spite of our advantageous location, for some reason we had sound but no picture. Our engineering crew worked feverishly to find the flaw, but race time arrived, and my partner, Chuck Searcy, was forced to begin announcing the race with a black screen. As our engineers worked frantically, Chuck, who was at the finish line with the useless camera, gamely described the race as it passed in front of him. He doggedly continued throughout the whole race, basically saying, “Here they come, and there they go,” over and over again.

So, this eclipse inevitably reminds me of Observer Television’s coverage of the 1984 event, and for some reason that immediately conjures the bike race, when our screen was blacker than any eclipse.