Every GM and news director I know who oversees a local newsroom has taken severe weather very seriously. We spend millions of dollars on early warning equipment, radars and other software to make sure we can get the information on the air as quickly as possible. We are local broadcasters. We are the only source of instantaneous information showing the storm, explaining where it is heading and what viewers need to know right now to protect themselves. This is what a local TV station does. It focuses on your community. Your home.
Sometimes you just can’t win when running a TV newsroom.
As local broadcasters and holders of FCC licenses, I have always believed our responsibilities include notifying viewers of severe weather.
Every GM and news director I know who oversees a local newsroom has taken severe weather very seriously. We spend millions of dollars on early warning equipment, radars and other software to make sure we can get the information on the air as quickly as possible.
Have we ever over-hyped weather? Sure. Show me a station that hasn’t in a promo or a tease. But at the end of the day, a key focus of every local news operation is weather, especially severe weather coverage.
But we don’t interrupt Ellen, soap operas, Judge Judy, football, baseball, golf or soccer for the hype. Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows what happens when you interrupt a soap. It gets ugly. The phones light up, the emails start and the Facebook page goes crazy – sometimes with vile comments. So, what if there is a tornado on the ground in a nearby neighborhood?
The soap viewers want to know who had Johnny’s baby. But the people in the path of the storm who saw the coverage and got to the storm shelters don’t complain. They may owe their lives and their family’s safety to the local broadcasters, and they know it.
As TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell wrote about in his July 18 column, the latest fuss is over WENY, an Elmira, N.Y., TV station interrupting the World Cup for a tornado warning.
Despite the vitriolic responses from some viewers, the station had no choice. Interrupt with a local tornado warning — meaning a tornado is on the ground or one has been spotted by the weather service — or stay with the game? It was an easy, easy decision: get the warning on the air and show viewers where it’s heading.
Again, it’s about protecting our viewers. They can get the score later; it’s too late to warn viewers after the tornado passed through their community.
We are local broadcasters. We are the only source of instantaneous information showing the storm, explaining where it is heading and what viewers need to know right now to protect themselves. The Web can’t do that. The Weather Channel doesn’t care about your neighborhood. Radio can’t show pictures (and probably has very few listeners). This is what a local TV station does. It focuses on your community. Your home.
I lived through this dilemma in Atlanta years ago. We had severe weather with tornado warnings while we were carrying the NCAA basketball tournament. Talk about March Madness; in an effort to serve two masters — warning viewers and providing the game — we ended up doing a split screen with audio/video from our weather team in one box and game video in the other. Some viewers went crazy. How could you squeeze back the game? Some thanked us for keeping the game on and others thanked us for showing the warnings.
It was a no-win situation. But there’s no question it was the right call.
And then let’s not forget the FCC. Failure to provide life-saving information can be an issue with the FCC. They expect stations to provide public safety information … there’s a reason they call them “the public airwaves.” Failing to deliver on that obligation could jeopardize the license or cost the station money.
I remember years ago when during a rash of wildfires in San Diego, the stations were all in continuous coverage mode. They were spending tens of thousands of dollars in live coverage and losing revenue with the wall-to-wall coverage. But still this didn’t make the FCC happy. As I recall it fined two stations for failure to provide live closed captioning.
One could only wonder what would have happened if a tornado had actually touched down and tracked through Elmira. Had the station stayed with the World Cup people could have died without the warning from the station. The station would have been blasted for worrying about a soccer game instead of the safety of the viewers. It could have gotten ugly, very ugly … much worse than a few obscene messages from angry soccer fans.
And the FCC could step in and threaten the license saying the station failed to provide critical safety information.
There’s no question the station did the right thing by protecting its viewers.
For the naysayers, would you have rather it carried the game and not warned the people who died in the path of the storm because they didn’t have the local, lifesaving information they needed? A score versus people’s lives — what’s the question?
For stations that are used to serving their communities it’s such an easy decision.
As Douglas Beers, general manager of WENY, told Jessell, “The policy of the station is to keep viewers safe. That’s what we do. That’s what we stand behind and we never apologize for that.”
He’s absolutely right. There may be some slings and arrows, but that’s what broadcasters do.
Steve Schwaid is vice president, digital strategies, at CJ&N, a TV market research and consulting firm based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He can be reached at [email protected]