EXCERPTS

From Chapter 1

“And Now, Your Forecast”

On the shelf of quintessential American phenomena, weathercasting fits quite comfortably next to jazz, baseball, and ice cream cones. Weather presentations on TV are a worldwide phenomenon, of course, and the weather itself knows no geographic boundaries. However, the roots of weathercasting are firmly planted in a nation that’s populous, highly mobile, plugged into mass media, and blessed (or cursed) with hundreds of different climatic regimes, including some of the most violent weather on earth.

Even as U.S. broadcast meteorologists have served as the target of innumerable jokes over the years about their accuracy—or presumed lack of it—they have also saved thousands of lives. Somehow, frivolity and serious information manage to coexist in the world of TV weather.

Though it may seem that weathercasts have always been with us, the look and feel of weathercasting as we know it evolved through experimentation and improvisation at dozens of embryonic U.S. TV stations in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The formula soon crystallized, and today, more than 1,000 Americans make their living by standing in front of a camera talking about warm fronts, supercells, cold-air damming, and whether or not your weekend picnic will get rained out.

Roughly half of those weathercasters hold degrees in meteorology, while others come to the field from a variety of backgrounds. Regardless of their pedigrees, weather anchors connect with the public in a way that few others on television can manage. With their intensely local orientation, their links to public safety, and their aura of scientific credibility, weathercasters can be among a city’s most celebrated and trusted personalities, and the newscasts in which they are featured are critical to the financial well-being of local television.

The prototype of the meteorological soothsayer predates television by centuries, but people didn’t expect a great deal of science from those who claimed to know the mysteries of the atmosphere. By the turn of the twentieth century, though, as newspapers brought government forecasts to readers each day and the U.S. Weather Bureau was gaining credibility, the modern archetype of the U.S. weatherperson began to take shape-amiable, persistent, sometimes scorned, but nearly always listened to.

The image sharpened further when television put a face to the weather, replacing the never-seen, office-bound forecaster with a very public entertainer-weatherperson. Before long, weather presenters found themselves woven into the fabric of U.S. culture. A radical political group in the 1960s named themselves the Weathermen, and the Weather Girls rose to dance-music fame in the 1980s. Countless comedians have poked fun at the part of the newscast itself most likely to veer toward the lighthearted—at least when tornadoes or snowstorms aren’t bearing down on a viewing area.

Is the weather really that important, compared to terrorists and Super Bowls? Survey after survey show it is. Despite the attention heaped on news and sports anchors, it’s weather that consistently ranks as the top draw in local news, and national newscasts often lead with the weather disaster du jour. Five stations polled by the National Weather Service in 1980 were unanimous in naming weather “the major reason that people watch the news program.” Research in the 1990s by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation showed that 72 percent of viewers were interested in the local forecast, versus 65 percent in crime and 31 percent in sports. And as the editor of Broadcasting & Cable put it in 2003, “It’s not the day’s mayhem that is dragging eyeballs to the 11:00 news. It’s the weather.”

There’s more to the popularity of TV weather than the information it presents. Many weathercasters are remarkably well-known figures on their home turf. A survey in the nation’s top 50 television markets found that weathercasters were rated above their news and sports counterparts for awareness and appeal. Willard Scott, the jovial and immensely popular weathercaster on NBC’s Today from 1980 to 1996, drew over 27,000 supportive phone calls when the newspaper USA Today asked its readers whether Scott was helping or hindering the show.

Unlike many other topics appearing in the daily news, weather is universally tangible. It’s right outside the window every second of every day. That presence, mixed with the constant change and variety of day-to-day weather events, makes tomorrow’s forecast one of the most important elements in local news. And when hurricanes, blizzards, or other major storms strike, weather can dominate television news for days on end.

Of course, dry facts alone aren’t enough to attract TV audiences, especially when potential viewers can easily go to their computers or cell phones and get an avalanche of weather data. A weathercaster can’t hope to compete with the Internet when it comes to providing sheer volume of information (though many broadcast meteorologists are now frequent bloggers). What she can provide is something quite different: a human touch that puts raw data in perspective. A skilled weathercaster can zero in on critical and timely details when weather threats loom, serving both to inform and to calm anxious viewers. When conditions are more placid, weathercasters may provide a dose of science education, help connect viewers to their communities, or simply give voice to the shared appreciation of a bright spring day or a picture-perfect snowfall.

In searching for the blend of science and show biz that keeps viewers coming back, stations once went to absurd lengths. What serious newscaster would be asked to read the days’ headlines while submerged in a tank of water, as Ginger Stanley did for the CBS Morning Show weather in 1957? Would even the best-paid sportscaster in the United States report for duty dressed as Carmen Miranda, as Willard Scott did in the early 1980s? Don Noe, John Coleman, and Lloyd Lindsay Young all delivered weather segments while standing on their heads. Sean Potter (then at KYMA in Yuma, Arizona) presented an entire segment while spinning in a giant gyroscope. Was any more ever asked of Katie Couric or Brian Williams?

Thanks to such stunts, weathercasting was long ago tied to wackiness in the eyes of many. Yet even when silly weathercasts were at their peak, the job had its deadly serious side. Weather anchors in Tornado Alley stayed up all night during storm season, doggedly watching radar screens and warning the public of life-threatening twisters. News and weather reporters traveled thousands of miles each year to cover hurricanes threatening the United States. Seldom does television aid the public in such a direct fashion. Today, covering severe weather with accuracy and immediacy often means the difference between ratings success or disaster for local stations.

In the process of watching weathercasters, Americans have learned something about weather itself. Seeing a cold front march across the United States over a week’s time illuminates the connection between record heat one day and biting chill the next. And as the public’s weather savvy has increased, so have the tools of the television weather trade. An ever-more-sophisticated array of graphic tools now is at the disposal of weather presenters. At its worst, the frenetic 3D imagery can leave viewers bedazzled but perplexed, still just wanting to know whether it’ll rain tomorrow. At its best, it can bring clarity, simplifying the vast processes underlying world climate and giving the impression that weather makes sense.


From Chapter 8

When Minutes Count

With many television stations acquiring specialized radar and building their own networks of storm chasers and spotters in the 1980s and 1990s, their ability to provide the public with customized severe weather guidance—and their motivation to do so—began to rise. As far back in the 1960s, some stations were making a significant investment in severe weather coverage. Radar become standard equipment at many stations through the tornado-prone Great Plains and Midwest. After a brush with killer storms in 1964, Minneapolis’ KSTP built its “Emergency Weather Center.” As described in Television Age, “A separate studio, complete with weather charts, lights, audio, and video… is ready at all times. A push of a button cuts out regular programming and cuts in the [KSTP] Emergency Weather Center.”

Though the technology at hand was still primitive by today’s standards, high drama was already entering tornado coverage. As a twister approached Wichita Falls, Texas, on April 3, 1964, employees of KAUZ wheeled a camera out of the studio and pointed it skyward. That tornado was apparently the first ever to be broadcast live on television. Two years later, on June 8, 1966, a huge twister bore down on Topeka, Kansas. With the storm nearing town, WIBW anchorman Bill Kurtis told his audience, “If you’re not under cover now, for God’s sake, take cover!” The station’s 25-minute advance warning was credited with helping keep the death toll to 17, despite 500 injuries and $100 million in damage.

Such intensity notwithstanding, severe weather bulletins rarely preempted regular programming for more than a few minutes at a time. Unlike hurricane threats, which might extend over a period of days, severe storms affect smaller regions for a shorter time. Wall-to-wall severe weather coverage was thus extremely rare, reserved mainly for the aftermath of major tornado strikes. Following the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak of 1965, Indianapolis’ WFBM canceled all regular programs for two days to relay information on relief efforts, victims’ names, and the like.

The flavor of severe weather coverage began to change and the stakes began to rise in the 1980s, as weather became an increasingly valued part of increasingly profitable newscasts. Many stations began to acquire their own Doppler radars, and satellite newsgathering vehicles made it possible for producers to send reporters or freelancers into the field. New computer graphics systems allowed storms to be tracked with far more precision than before (see Chapter 7). All of these factors made it much more appealing for stations to go wall-to-wall with severe weather, since there was a larger variety of visual material at hand.

Oklahoma City was one of the first areas where technological progress led to such fierce competition that insiders began to refer to “weather wars,” as described by an observer in 1994:

The wars had been building with the quiet intensity of a spring storm in the heartland for years, the hype apparent to any viewer who has seen an embarrassed mike-wielding reporter on a damp stretch of road near Perkins explaining that, sure, there are no tornadoes or hail and just a few distant lightning bolts, but he has the storm covered, anyway.

Doppler radar was an especially important bragging point for stations in the late 1980s and 1990s, before access to NWS Doppler data became routine. The high-tech cachet of the Doppler name continued into the twenty-first century, despite the radar’s intimidatingly complex displays. Software that allowed stations in adjoining markets to share their Doppler data and create composite displays led to the tag line of “triple Doppler.” In Terre Haute, Indiana, WTWO ran promotions in 2006 touting the merits of its Doppler unit—located well outside of town—versus one at its rival WTHI that was located in town and presumably prone to interference from buildings. To promote its critique, WTWO went so far as to set up a Web site that referred to “the Doppler dead zone.”

Bolstering live coverage is another way for stations to set themselves apart as leaders in severe weather coverage. From the field, “storm chasers” typically send back live or taped video of tornadoes, large hail, and other severe events, with the in-house weatherperson serving as counterpoint to the action outside (see Chapter 8). Compelling imagery—and big ratings spikes—can result. However, the accuracy of the content may suffer from the decoupling of observer and broadcast meteorologist. In one notorious 1993 case, a storm chaser for Oklahoma City’s KFOR described his view of a tornado ripping through the small town of Ryan, Oklahoma: “We’re looking at debris in the air, Mike. It has hit houses now on the west side of Ryan. Houses are now exploding.” It soon became apparent the town hadn’t been struck at all.

“There’s virtually no editorial process or verification or script-checking [with remote weather reports]. . . . Meteorologists often watch and wince,” noted Scott Libin of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists.

Going into the field to cover severe storms live brings a host of hazards, some obvious and others unexpected. At Oklahoma City’s KWTV, one news photographer was shot in the chest and suffered a collapsed lung while tracking storms in March 1990, and a KWTV engineer was struck and disabled by lightning in 1992. Perhaps the most famed example of live tornado coverage in the 1990s involved a crew from Wichita’s KSNW who found themselves huddling beneath an overpass on Interstate 35 on April 26, 1991, as a twister passed overhead, throwing debris nearby. The clip was replayed ad infinitum on many stations over the following years, inspiring many citizens to use overpasses as shelter—a practice explicitly discouraged after three people were killed and several others severely injured when they were blown out from beneath overpasses in the Oklahoma tornadoes of May 3, 1999.


See “The Book” for the table of contents.




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