OPEN MIKE BY STEVE SCHWAID

Viewer Safety Or Soccer? That’s A No-Brainer

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.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

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]


Comments (18)

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Michelle Underwood says:

July 28, 2014 at 9:55 am

Well said. While I’m always happy to have loyal viewers, I often question the intelligence of someone who would rather we continue with a game or worse, soap opera, instead of a life safety message. Worst of all are the troglodytes who wail “it wasn’t in my neighborhood so I don’t care.”

James Diaz says:

July 28, 2014 at 10:20 am

Bravo.

Bobbi Proctor says:

July 28, 2014 at 10:21 am

As viewers we rely heavily on our local TV stations for emergency information–usually bad weather–and believe that is the main responsibility of stations. But with digital making possible multiple programming there can be a way to provide both–severe weather information for a small area the station reaches and maintaining the regular schedule. When severe information is necessary continue the regular programming on a subchannel letting viewers know that if they aren’t impacted by the emergency they can tune from say channel 33.1 to channel 33.2 or 33.3 for example. If the area impacted changes viewers could be alerted to go back to channel 33.1. for information that could effect them. Our battery powered TV is always ready in the basement available to bring us possible lifesaving information. For this we thank our local stations that we depend on.

    Trudy Rubin says:

    July 28, 2014 at 11:22 am

    WENY runs 3 Sub-Channels, 36.1 ABC 36.2 CBS 36.3 CW. WENY is a very rural market broadcasting south central New York Sate and Northern Central Pennsylvania. The problem you have is each sub-channel is carried on a different cable channel and they are in multiple cable systems, plus the majority of their viewers are watching on cable. It would be impossible to direct viewers to different cable channel and no doubt WENY ran the warning across all their channels. WENY over air broadcast is interesting from a technical standpoint, 36.1 ABC is 720p and 36.2 CBS is 1080i, 36.3 CW is 480, but in a 16.9 format.

    Ronnie Clark says:

    July 28, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Chuck, where do they sell battery-powered TVs that are able to receive post-digital-switch stations?

    Wagner Pereira says:

    July 28, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    Chuck, wrong on so many counts…again. First you cannot get the Basketball games on different CBS Stations any longer. You cannot get them OTA. Second, stations might have 150 mile radius with the tower in the center, but not 150 miles from the tower except in the most extreme conditions – in which maybe less than 1,000 viewers nationwide might have the capability. Third, the EMERGENCY INFORMATION INFORMATION SHOULD BE SIMULCAST ON BOTH MAIN AND ALL SUB-CHANNELS. None should be showing regular programming. And Fourth, stations 150 miles away will not be giving block level radar for cities 150 miles away (and probably will not even be interrupting their programming).

kendra campbell says:

July 28, 2014 at 10:28 am

There is no question WENY did the right thing. Absolutely stations have an obligation to warn viewers when there is a “real” threat. Unfortunately many stations hype on a daily basis. This “Chicken Little” philosophy has reached the point of insanity. Look in the mirror and you will usually discover the cause of the problem.

Michelle Underwood says:

July 28, 2014 at 11:08 am

Chuck, you are making an assumption that is incorrect. Many stations do not have the ability to continue regular programming on a subchannel. In some cases there is another signal running on that subchannel. In most cases the station does not have the equipment to flip it over to the subchannel. This is especially true in smaller markets. Most importantly, an ethical station is running it’s weather alerts across all subchannels. A tornado bearing down on a market is not as important to viewers of one channel versus another? It isn’t always as easy as the viewer thinks it is.

Bobbi Proctor says:

July 28, 2014 at 3:11 pm

I did not assume that all stations could currently do this or would want to. And an industry outsider there is, of course, much that I do not understand. But I do have a better understanding of what is possible than most viewers. While visiting relatives elsewhere a few years ago during March Madness I was able to watch two CBS NCAA games on the same station. The second channel was activated only during the tournaments and carried only NCAA games. When not airing the games a test pattern was broadcast. The rest of the year the second channel was not activated. In my opinion a good use of digital technology. TV stations can cover areas up to 150 miles and more. It would take one hell of a big tornado to hit all of an area that wide. Often these warnings can impact only a very small portion of the area. Their lives are just as important as anyone’s, but why remove a popular program for the whole area? No wonder some people grumble. We sometimes tune to a network station from out of town when our local affiliate has weather warnings because they do not effect us.
I hear a lot of people complain about having programming preempted. The National Weather Service warnings are narrowed down sometimes to pretty small areas and do not wake up people in the middle of the night when a storm is in the area. Some stations carry up to 6 channels and if a station wanted they could add additional channels. It would be their choice. And by the way stations in smaller towns where there are fewer stations seem to have the most channels–some with more than one major network and some with smaller networks. Just give viewers the option to maintain their regular viewing if they don’t need the weather information.

Crystal Aminirad says:

July 28, 2014 at 7:41 pm

I would not expect the Nashville market to be much different from most — and the problem here is that unlike Steve’s point that broadcasters occasionally hype weather in a promo, stations here DO HYPE severe weather coverage. One of our local stations has gone so far this year as to begin issuing its own ALERTS! And they do it constantly. It’s clearly a ratings ploy. And one that does not consider the long-term ramifications. As a radio broadcaster/owner, I find it appalling that TV stations and more importantly, the broadcasters within, would potentially risk injury to viewers because they constantly are crying wolf. We all know what TRUE severe weather IS! We also know what run of the mill summer time storms are. Just tonight, our local station showed a map of massive damage reports (the broadcaster description) from last night’s storm. In a 50-county area, there appeared to be less than 25 reports. And consider, that these reports could be a limb down. That is FAR from massive — and how often a tree limb will come down in a typical storm. Viewers tire of the crying wolf — and my fear in our market is they are not going to take the next TRUE warning seriously. Should the TV station have broken in for a tornado on the ground. Absolutely. Does the TV station need to break in 9 of the other 10 times? Is that why people were in part outraged (you are breaking into my soccer game for something that’s not real)? I would hope that all broadcasters would remember their public service responsibility and take care to not alarm people for the sake of ratings or just because we have bought all this equipment.

Bobbi Proctor says:

July 28, 2014 at 10:16 pm

You are right, Insider, that stations don’t normally reach stations 150 miles from the tower. I should have specified radius with signals reaching up to 70 and 80 miles reaching an area 150 miles wide. Viewers in one area could lose their regular because of a storm 150 miles away. I do agree with all of you who say that stations have a responsibility to warn viewers of impending danger. No question about that. Larry Stone is right about viewers starting to ignore some warnings as there are too many that do not warrant extreme messages. But not all stations currently air these warnings on all of their sub channels and some stations (ION, TBN are examples) that provide no weather information even when a tornado is on the ground. If there is known severe weather in our community we will not be watching the local ION, TBN, or any station that does not have a local news department even though a station may interrupt programming with messages from the National Weather Service. I do realize again Insider, that CBS stations can no longer air more than one NCAA tournament game at a time since they partnered with several cable networks to share games. The OTA viewer loses again and CBS loses some viewers. I travel a lot and watch a lot of different stations OTA. There are a lot of different ways that local stations handle these situations. Some could do a lot better job of providing essential information without interrupting so much programming. But I repeat that a station’s prime responsibility should be to provide lifesaving information and most do.

alicia farmer says:

July 29, 2014 at 8:26 am

The top 25 market I live in is similar to most. Four “news” stations – and all hype on almost a daily basis. There is always some manufactured problem arriving in the next few days. A stray summer thundershower is treated like a terrorist threat. It’s way past time for many stations to get serious and stop playing a very dangerous game.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    July 30, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    It is telling that in your hometown of Charlotte, a corridor of Carolinas Medical Center Main Emergency Room was roped off today. A Security Guard was posted outside to prevent anyone from crossing the line. Seems a patient arrived at CMC after visiting a country known for high risk of Ebola. CMC took the measures to protect patients, staff and visitors. After consulting with the CDC and others, the area was re-opened after it was determined the risk for communicable disease being spread in the entrance was low. Did CMC over react? Using your posts over the past year, one can easily conclude you think it was overblown – especially as no danger was found. But on the flip side, what if it had been the opposite. No containment. And people in Charlotte, perhaps you or your family, were then sickened by Ebola because no one took preventative measures. Perhaps then, your thinking would change. Its also true in News and Weather. One does not know if a funnel cloud will be produced from storms. And just like CMC took precautions to prevent Ebola in Charlotte, Stations make decisions to scroll or break into live programming in an effort to save lives. If you really were a former gm, then you know that no one wants to break into programming and lose revenue. It is not a decision taken lightly. Then again, perhaps that is why you are a former GM – to attentive to numbers and the bottom line – instead of worrying about Broadcasting in the Public Interest.

Patrick Schooley says:

July 29, 2014 at 9:10 am

Why is a crawl not good enough for weather alerts?

    Darrell Bengson says:

    July 29, 2014 at 10:12 am

    What you do for blind people? You have to provide audio and visual alerts. So you might as well kick out the useless entertainment junk and provide an actual community service.

    Patrick Schooley says:

    July 29, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    If your blind and dont have a weather radio, I’m sorry. Maybe just a EAS beep when the crawl starts, alerting them. There is a better way of doing this. Taking the whole stream away for an extended period of time is just ridiculous.

    How about just looking outside. I never once in my life have relied on the TV to protect me from weather, i look outside.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    July 30, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Forget it. If lives are at risk, there is no more important programming than keeping lives safe. You would have a 180 degree turnaround in thinking if a tornado actually struck your house.

Bobbi Proctor says:

July 29, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Thanks to all of the posts I’ve learned that there are a lot of opinions among broadcasters of how to alert viewers to severe weather emergencies. All seem to be in agreement that their station has an obligation to protect their viewers during dangerous weather conditions. That is good. There also appears to be agreement that there are viewers who object to weather announcements interrupting regular programming. And there certainly are those who think some stations overdue their severe weather broadcasts in their advertising and during the storm. “Viewer Safety or Soccer?” It may not work for all stations but I think the wise use of digital can make both possible. I hope broadcasters will be creative and figure out the right way for their stations to do both. It is possible.


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