Severe storm coverage: Going Overboard?

We had a pretty nasty storm come through Nashville the other night, and one of the local stations really pissed me off. This happens to me quite frequently, now that I’m just a viewer. Here’s the scenario: I’m watching Big Brother on the CBS station (call me a nut, but it’s my favorite summer show). The entire focus of the program was the veto ceremony. That was the whole point of watching. At a few minutes before 9pm, just as Scott was opening his mouth to give his veto decision, the station cut to wall-to-wall coverage. Augh!

My boss in Huntsville was determined to own the severe weather niche in the market when I was there — at any cost. We had a big Doppler radar, a sat truck, multiple microwave capabilities, and a cast of thousands with which to work. Everybody worked severe weather. Everybody. And there was one inviolable rule: if there was a tornado warning anywhere in the market, we would interrupt programming and go wall-to-wall until it was cancelled. This resulted in another station elevating their coverage, and soon every weather event was a stand-off to see who would end their coverage first. We just HAD to be able to say WE were the weather kings.

And it occurs to me, now that I’m just a viewer, that we never once considered the program we were in, much less WHERE we were within that program. And it’s so easy to justify just dumping programming. After all, we’re saving lives, right? Well, only partially. We were much more interested in our “image” than anything involving the people at home.

Here in Nashville, the newspaper today published an article that gave readers the endings of all the shows that were interrupted. It was a great public service. There was also a letter to the editor that people throughout the industry need to see. It’s called “Overzealous Weather Reports Are Irritating.” Here’s a portion:

After calling two stations and receiving a rude answer of “we are in a severe weather situation that is more important to our viewers,” I decided to retire to my computer and read online updates of my favorite shows that I missed.”
This statement says volumes about the new paradigm in communications, that the consumer of information is in charge. Mess with him or her at your own risk.

I went through an F‑5 tornado when I was only 10 years old. April 3, 1956. I’ll never forget it. The thing passed within a few miles of my house and completely destroyed a fairly sizeable suburb. It was late in the afternoon, and I watched the funnel approach. The only warnings we had back then were the cold war air raid sirens on the tops of schools. For years, people have been clamoring for early warnings, and in my lifetime, I’ve seen that happen. The problem is this: all tornadoes have circulation in the atmosphere, but not all circulation in the atmosphere is a tornado. All we can do is tell people there’s circulation, and the vast majority of warnings now say, “Radar indicates a possible tornado.” This is fine for warning people, but can we really allow the crying wolf syndrome to creep into this? We’re close.

But, Terry, we’d get sued if we could’ve warned somebody but didn’t.

And while I’m at it, here’s another question for stations and their meteorologists. We spend a lot of time and resources educating people in the community. When do we give them a chance to use what they’ve learned and stop spoon-feeding them?

In the end, the coverage the other night was probably justified. We had 70–100 mph winds come through, and it was exciting. Still, they could’ve waited until Scott said what he was going to do with the veto.


  1. The crying wolf syndrome is way beyond “close.” Eight years ago, my grandmother fell victim to an overzealous meteorologist in our area. Any time there was severe weather in the market, he would do wall-to-wall coverage and get extremely overexcited. “Take cover! Turn the volume up righ there on Channel ** and head for your place of safety!” Well, sometimes the severe weather was forty miles from her. After the day she called me from the closet in a panic (at age 74, with diminished mental capacity) I went to her house and promptly deleted his channel from her cable. In the years since she’s passed on, I’ve told that story in our town many times, and no one has ever questioned the wisdom of that decision, nor has anyone thought I overreacted. “I won’t worry unless my ears pop — if you listen to the jackasses on TV, you’d panic every time there’s a little wind.”

  2. Terry:

    Shorter Terry Heaton:

    OK, it was 100 mph wind, but I sure do hate to miss my favorite show”

    You undermined your entire point.

    Big Brother kills time. Severe weather kills.

    Your point about marketing over common sense is justified, but would you like to be the one to choose when to warn the public and when not to?

  3. I appreciate the comment, Dave, but I want both the warning and to watch my program. I’m not alone, and a TV station’s inability to give me both is one of its shortcomings and why I keep hammering home multimedia solutions. I think that’s the point.

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