Lessons learned trying to live-stream an eclipse
Some months back, the Astronomical Society of South Africa (ASSA) decided use the upcoming partial annular solar eclipse to promote astronomy in South Africa, and perhaps drum up a few new members for ASSA. Now ASSA has decades of experience with public outreach, but they wanted to try something new: video. My brief, as a committee volunteer, was to help them to live-stream an eclipse. Overall, we felt we’d succeeded in the end, but there were definitely some lessons worth learning.
Now broadcasting astronomical events isn’t exactly a brand new idea, but nobody on that committee had any experience with live video at all. Thanks to my big mouth and endless stream of untested ideas, my colleagues seemed to assume that I would know what I was doing. As a result of their confidence in me, and my own ignorance of just how much work would be involved, the resulting broadcast was significantly worse than I’d hoped to deliver. But I did deliver! And in the process of getting a broadcast out there, I managed to learn a great deal about how the job of live-streaming an eclipse should actually be done.
What we wanted
After much discussion and many committee meetings, we settled on the basic format of the eclipse live-stream: I would produce the show, which would be broadcast on YouTube Live, using Google Hangouts to collect the feeds and combine them. We would have two or three cameras, looking through telescopes or fitted with telephoto lenses, tracking the Sun for the duration of the eclipse, all from different geographical locations. The feed would switch between cameras, to demonstrate how the view of the eclipse changes from moment to moment at different latitudes and time-zones.
We would also monitor social media (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube comments) for questions about the eclipse, and answer them as they were asked. An audio commentary would be provided, explaining what was on-screen and giving feedback to viewer questions. We realised we were probably being a little ambitious, given our lack of experience, so we tried to identify possible pitfalls to figure out ways to avoid them. As it happens, we badly overestimated our abilities, and learned a few lessons, which I’ll list below:
Rehearse your show
This one is obvious. I knew going in that we were going to be using a bunch of unfamiliar technology to do something that none of us had ever done before, in front of a large audience. An audience that would be free to comment on our performance. Of course we should try it out first, if only to make sure that we knew how to use our tools!
And yet, we didn’t. We tried a few times to schedule practice sessions, when we would run dummy shows with our cameras pointed at local scenery, but it somehow never worked. Sometimes my camera operators would have internet trouble, or simply not be at their computers when I tried to create the feed, other times my own family responsibilities would force me to reschedule, and more than once I was so distracted by work and family drama that I simply forgot!
So lesson number one has to be this: The time to be serious and committed to the show starts at the first rehearsal, NOT on the big day. Don’t assume that you know what you’re doing until you’ve actually done it, and this applies to every aspect of the show. When you find out an hour into the show that the embedded links you provided to all your partner websites aren’t working, it’s too late to try to find the settings that need fixing!
One of my biggest mistakes was trying to handle everything on my own. I was the show producer, a camera operator, social media manager and the host. That meant that I was responsible for creating and maintaining the broadcast, communicating with all camera operators and bringing their feeds into the show, operating a camera and telescope of my own, monitoring our Facebook and twitter feeds (and responding to comments), monitoring and responding to comments on YouTube, searching social media regularly for our official hashtag so as to repost or retweet eclipse images taken by the public, and all while chattering about the Sun and the Moon on a live audio feed.
In hindsight, it’s no wonder I failed! Although the core task was completed successfully — I kept my camera on target and provided a consistent (albeit somewhat blurry!) image of the Sun for the entirety of the eclipse — I simply did not have the head space or time to do much else apart from respond to a few dozen comments on YouTube.
So lesson number two is this: find volunteers to handle each task individually. One person searching for public images to share and promote, one person producing, one person per camera feed, and so on. The less work you dump on each individual, the better the chance of all tasks getting done.
Do not make assumptions
If you watch the video of our broadcast, you’ll notice that there is only one single camera looking at the Sun throughout the entire show. Sometimes the Sun drifts out of frame, sometimes the feed sticks entirely. This is because, while several people had offered to provide feeds, only I was able to actually do so on the day. Some had technical difficulties preventing them from joining the Hangouts session, and others were clouded out. But others had quietly withdrawn weeks before, realising that they would not have the time or resources to help out.
My first assumption was that a “Hey, this is cool, can I join?” message sent months earlier was a solid commitment and that I didn’t need confirmation closer to the time (disclaimer: I did try to get this confirmation, but did not get replies. I kept them on the list, because wishful thinking).
My second assumption was that everybody who had agreed to supply a feed would in fact be able to. As it happens, weather, technical difficulties and (in my case) a catastrophically timed power failure conspired to break the clean flow of the show. While nothing could have been done to prevent these problems, they could have been anticipated.
Lesson number three, then: Think about your assumptions. Think about what you’ll do if they are wrong. Make plans for how to handle the unexpected.
Despite my own negative reports on the show, ASSA seemed happy enough with how things worked to want to try again. After all, we reached more than 28,000 viewers. But while that seems a lot to an organisation used to running face-to-face outreach operations, it’s not that impressive for YouTube. I think we can do better, especially if we learn from the lessons above.
There will be another African Solar Eclipse on Sunday, 26 February 2017, visible in the late afternoon for South Africans. My own involvement is uncertain (I will be travelling in February, but dates are not confirmed), but I think we can all expect a better performance this time around, so remember to subscribe to ASSA’s YouTube channel and catch the show!