TV Storm Surge ... and the Demanding Life of a 'Statesman' Editor
With a storm of biblical proportions barreling toward Austin Wednesday night, the National Weather Service triggered the emergency alert system to warn TV viewers of looming danger. Flee to your closets! Toss a blanket over your head! Turn off Real World, and focus, dumbass! All those screeching "tests of the emergency broadcasting system" in the middle of the night were paying off. The EAS was on the job, the lifeline of communication between authorities and the populace in the most dangerous of times, established for just this type of emergency.
Except, when the EAS broke into programming on Wednesday night, some Time Warner Cable subscribers were told to tune to Channel 44 to find an audio feed with information deemed crucial by the federal system. Unfortunately, when they tuned to Channel 44, they found nothing but snow and dead air, which may not have been helpful for Auntie Em and the gang deciding whether or not to head to the apple cellar.
As it turns out, several months ago Time Warner moved the local weather channel from Channel 44 to the "digital tier" on Channel 355, which is available only to customers with a cable box. Customers who plug the cable directly into a TV were supposed to be told to go to News 8, the local cable news channel.
Time Warner is responsible for generating the text crawl, not the National Weather Service. "Once we put out the warning ... it's not up to us how it is displayed," said Paul Yura, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's area office. Time Warner spokesman Roger Heaney said the problem was a "technical glitch" that affected some customers without digital boxes, and it has been corrected. He suggested it may have been localized to a neighborhood, but viewers in both East and West Austin saw the same message.
Heaney also said the cable company didn't receive a single call about the wrong message, which may say something about interest in the emergency alert system. The only complaints, he said, were that the announcements were "too loud."
The storm, described by some as one of the worst in 20 years, was a gift from the Dark Lord for local TV news operations, which were in the midst of the key May sweeps period.
As the night progressed and the reported size of the hail grew from quarters and golf balls to the size of ripe grapefruits, the stations dumped network programming and went to full weather coverage, eager to show off their weather toys. For NBC affiliate KXAN, that meant leaving one of the final episodes of Law & Order. "When you're in a tornado warning, there is no issue," said KXAN General Manager Eric Lassberg. The only station not in full storm coverage at 9pm was CBS affiliate KEYE, which apparently deemed CSI: New York more important than reports of winds powerful enough to uproot trees. (KEYE managers didn't return calls seeking comment.)
For the stations that went with weather coverage, the result was one of the largest audiences of the year. According to the overnight ratings report, at 9pm ABC affiliate KVUE posted a 12.5 rating, and KXAN posted a 10.1 rating, which means more than 22% of all the TV households in Austin were tuned to the two stations – the type of numbers rarely seen anymore for TV news. At 10pm, KVUE's regularly scheduled newscast posted an 11.3 rating, followed by KXAN with a 9.8. (In contrast, last November the average rating for KVUE's 10pm top-rated newscast was a 6.9.) KEYE, which stuck to its network programming, ended up in third place with a 6.8 rating.
By Friday, KXAN was already running ads touting its Wednesday night weather coverage; KEYE was promoting a report on erectile dysfunction.
Home subscribers to the Austin American-Statesman who went to bed early Wednesday night may not have realized there was a storm the night before, based on the Thursday morning paper. The front page of the final edition didn't even mention the storm, although it did feature a fascinating story on the earthquake in China. The only storm coverage appeared on the front page of the Metro section with the headline "Rain, rain for at least another day."
Severe tornado warnings were posted early Wednesday night, and the staff was cranking, judging by coverage on the website. But it appears that the Statesman pooh-bahs didn't feel it was worth holding the newspaper for the breaking news, once again positioning the paper in the modern media age as "your source for news that happened awhile ago." (Statesman Managing Editor Fred Zipp didn't respond to calls or e-mail.)
The May sweeps ratings period wraps up this week, and it's clear there has been a fundamental shift in at least one time period: The sleepy 5-7am slot is up for grabs after years of domination by KVUE, with KXAN and Fox affiliate KTBC winning different segments. While KVUE is still dominating at 5 and 6pm, 10pm is very close between KVUE, KXAN, and KEYE...
Retiring Statesman Editor Rich Oppel assured readers last week that he would continue to write an occasional column "because the instinct to write is primal in the editor species." For the record, a quick check of the Statesman's website finds that Oppel wrote a grand total of two columns in the last five months. But he's hardly alone in the wolverine-intense primal world of Statesman editorial writers. Sunday's column by Editorial Director Arnold Garcia Jr. (although the point was unclear, he twice used the phrase "fishing where the fish are") was only his fourth bylined column of the year, making him the most prolific of the paper's vaunted editorial board...
Local Fox affiliate KTBC has revamped its set and graphics with the official Fox motif, a dizzying blast of red and blue that makes the anchors look like they're lost in a Bill O'Reilly-designed video game.
Kevin Brass can be contacted at email@example.com.