Doppler Shift

Weathercasting Succumbs to Frenzy

The icy rain that covered the city almost two weeks ago (January 13) brought the bizarre state of TV weather reporting into sharp relief as almost everybody but emergency crews and reporters avoided the cold light of day. On the face of it, the local weathercasters and their colleagues at all four stations did a terrific job, anticipating the conditions precisely and moving information on school and work cancelations with remarkable speed. This was TV news at its most useful, staying on top of a breaking story with unflagging energy. Despite plentiful footage of Texas Department of Transportation personnel trying to de-ice the major thoroughfares, it was obvious very early that morning that, as per usual, the city could not handle a serious freeze, and there was nothing for it but to stay home and bake cookies. (By the way, couldn't the police, EMS, and other essential services simply buy tire chains and tell the state crews to stay home, saving a small fortune in overtime and road salt?)

At the same time the coverage had a quality of a climactic event, and later on it was easy to imagine the weathercasters lying around exhausted, perhaps indulging in a furtive cigarette as they savored the afterglow. Weathercasting is a frenzied affair nowadays, touched by an aura of impending apocalypse. The forecasters seem to be in continuous rehearsal for catastrophes that are always hours away from threatening life and limb before fizzling out. Good, soaking summer rains are awarded the status of raging thunderstorms as they head into town. Insomniacs and graveyard shift workers wonder whether KXAN's Jim Spencer is ever allowed to sleep, and everyone is so grateful for rain that the constant warnings flashed across their television screens end up looking silly. A penchant for hyping the weather often works against the improved accuracy afforded by satellite images and computer projections, and sometimes the projections misfire. Following this month's ice event, every station in town warned that a reprise of Monday the 13th would hit on Friday the 17th, and it didn't happen.

Decade after decade, market surveys in every part of the country have demonstrated that a majority of viewers tune into their local news mainly to see what the weather will be like the next day. The very existence of the Weather Channel underscores the field's unwavering popularity. Given such a reliable audience magnet, news directors all over the country behaved like archetypal Americans when economic pressures ratcheted up to intense levels: They more or less went crazy. Faced with competition from cable and the expansion of the Fox Network into local markets, they succumbed to a technology fetish, investing in arsenals of imaging systems where one or two satellite pictures would do. Broadcast consultants made a pile pushing the deployment of snazzy computers and dramatic presentations, leading inevitably to the overhyping of ordinary weather events. Twice-a-night weather reports multiplied like loaves and fishes into spot coverage barrages morning, noon, and night, and the time allotted to the weather segment on the six- and 10-o'clock news shrank from three-and-half minutes to as little as two-and-a-half, or less. Five and seven-day forecasts became common, flying in the face of common sense about the changeable nature of weather. Once a relatively straightforward job, being an on-air meteorologist now involves running a battery of computers, plowing through reams of downloaded data, appearing before the cameras many times a day, and generally working harder for less money.

These trends are as evident in Austin as anywhere else. Except for the market underdog, Fox's KTBC, which still puts on a relatively low-tech and unpretentious weathercast, all of the Austin affiliates are heavily invested in the electronic paraphernalia, various combinations of the Earthwatch 3-D gizmo, Doppler radar, standard satellite images, and linked weather stations at regional schools. Their weather segments are frenetic and overdone even though the general quality of forecasting remains high. Money is visibly being spent in yet another instance of superfluous marketing mania.

As a rule, media professionals do not gripe about their jobs for attribution, employment opportunities not falling like the gentle rain as in decades past. At the American Meteorological Society's annual Weathercasting Conference, however, members are given the chance to ventilate their frustrations anonymously, and several dozen pages of comments from 1993 and 1994 are posted on the Internet. They are revelatory. Weathercasters complain of all the trends cited two paragraphs ago, and more: weather wannabes with mail-order degrees in meteorology, know-nothing broadcast majors hired for looks, and fearsome job insecurity (it's worth noting that the predictable litany about lack of advancement opportunities for white males is outweighed by criticism of underqualified hirees, though the two complaints are sometimed linked).

One comment from the 1994 conference in Dallas was especially eloquent: "I grew up in New Orleans, watching a guy named Nash Roberts do weeknight weather on the local news. He was not attractive, he was not funny, and he had no colorful whistles or bells... but he was interesting, accurate, and respected. Thirty years later I find myself in the same business as Nash Roberts. And yet, in many ways, it is not the same business. I see two conflicting trends in broadcast meteorology today. As the National Weather Service expands and improves, more and more information becomes available to broadcasters. New generation satellite imagery and Doppler radar data are two primary examples. Quickly, private weather vendors respond with ever more animated and detailed graphical products requiring more and more knowledgeable on-air interpretations. Meanwhile, however, the broadcast news industry seems headed in the opposite direction -- what one might call the `dumbing-down' of the news. Knowledgeable journalists are out -- attractive `broadcast majors' are in. Gathering news is out -- gathering profits is in. For the local weather segment, this means, among other things, less meteorology (`the viewers don't want a science lesson, they want to know what to wear') and less emphasis on anything but local weather (`nobody cares what's going on in other parts of the country.') So weathercasters are on the one hand expected to keep up with the latest 3-D satellite loops and Doppler radar displays, and on the other hand warned to keep it short, simple, and entertaining. As these conflicting trends continue, I suspect you'll find television stations hiring fewer people that actually know what they're talking about, and more people that merely sound like they know what they're talking about. Hopefully, there will always be exceptions -- television stations in especially weather-sensitive markets like tornado alley or the corn belt, or perhaps the odd station managed by especially professional people. And perhaps one day consultants and broadcasters will decide that television news can be both intelligent and profitable. But I'm not holding my breath."

Well, he or she is right. People do want to know what to wear tomorrow, and they're not all that interested in other parts of the country. Trained meteorologists have always known a lot more than they can tell in their allotted time. Still, that training acted as a breaker on weathercasting style. The strength of the old-fashioned weathercasting resided in its prudence. Since they were not frazzled from running an electronic light show and responding to absurd market pressures, the old breed of weathercasters knew when to raise the alarm and when to call a shower a shower.


In the 1996 Top Ten column that ran two issues ago, I mistakenly reported that KEYE's news operation had taken the lead in the ratings. This was not true, and I apologize to my readers. For the quarterly ratings period that ended in November of last year, the local news rankings are as follows:

6pm broadcast: KVUE (26% share of viewers); KXAN (17%); KEYE (15%); KTBC (15%).

10pm broadcast: KVUE (29%); KEYE (15%); KXAN (14%); KTBC (14%).

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