Saturday, April 06, 2013

Watch The Weather Channel On Thanksgiving Day, 2013! A Reprise Of "Turkeys Away"?!

This blogger's favorite TV newsman was Les Nessman — a fictional character on the television situation comedy "WKRP in Cincinnati" (1978–82) — played by Richard Sanders. Les Nessman did it all at WKRP, including the weather. The ultimate WKRP stunt was in the episode, "Turkeys Away," when a disastrous Thanksgiving Day station promotion saw live turkeys flung out of a rented helicopter. The birds plummeted from above and hit the ground like sacks of wet cement. Now, The Weather Channel has become the WKRP of our time. If this is a (fair & balanced) exposure of media huckstering and fear-mongering, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Gales Gone Wild
By Timothy Egan

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Things started to go wrong with the weather when the Weather Channel decided on its own last year to give every winter storm a proper name. Snow, no matter if it was simply falling on cedars, and frost, even if it was historically known as Jack, nipping at your nose, were gone. Thereafter came Winter Storm Brutus, Winter Storm Nemo, Winter Storm Saturn — some serious meteorological thugs.

No wonder we’re scared. More than news, sports or even adorable kitty videos, weather is by some measures now the most-accessed type of information on the Internet. As weather the generic has been overtaken by, the commercial brand that crosses all media platforms, barely a week passes without a reason to hide under your bed, remote in one hand, freeze-dried food in the other.

The scourge of 24-hour news, in which stuff that isn’t important gets its own countdown clock, is now doing to the weather what it did to public affairs and the stock market. It’s making us all a little jumpy and anxious, with a twisted view of the normal rhythms of the seasons.

Consider “Snowquester,” the storm that was supposed to shut down Washington, D.C., last month. Predictions were calling for up to a foot of snow, which would leave the world’s most powerful democracy at a standstill. The run on grocery stores was stunning: a can of lentil soup, for a few hours, was worth more than bad advice from Newt Gingrich. The Weather Channel’s flood stud, Jim Cantore, was dispatched to the capital for live updates, waiting, waiting, waiting.

And then — nothing. Rain fell, with some wet snow. The predictions for Snowquester were no more accurate than those of Dick “Landslide” Morris in his confident call of a Mitt Romney victory.

No matter. Tornado season had arrived. Off to Texas and the Gulf Coast. “Wednesday night will be dangerous!” the Weather Channel warned all this week, as their map’s high-def red cloud moved across the South. It wasn’t dangerous.

I consider myself something of a weather nerd, and confess to having conversations that go on far too long about low-pressure systems in the Gulf of Alaska, or hail that can dent a rental car. I’ve seen “The Perfect Storm” a half-dozen times, though I wish no one would ever use those words to describe anything but the book and the movie.

But I’ve learned not to spend too much time watching what should be the weather equivalent of SportsCenter. In parts of the High Plains, in Montana, in Southeast Alaska, weather is indeed vital to daily existence — it can mean the difference between life and death for pilots, long-haul truckers, fishermen. My experience over the years, watching the Weather Channel while waiting out militia standoffs in the rural West, was that it made me think I was never going to get home for the weekend.

When weather is so heavily anthropomorphized and given countdowns and deadlines, it helps no one. Well, maybe the ratings., and the Weather Channel and now Weather Underground (all under the corporate umbrella of NBCUniversal Media) already draw 163 million monthly unique visitors to their sites.

But just because they have a monopoly on weather information — with a share of the audience for this subject estimated at 89 percent — doesn’t mean they can mess with the great lament about the weather: everybody talks about it, nobody does anything about it.

For more than half a century, the National Hurricane Center, working with other governments, has been naming hurricanes. These storms, as we’ve seen, can erase cities and kill hundreds. They are not trivial. When regional governments, acting on advice and forecasts from federal meteorologists, urged people to get out of Hurricane Sandy’s path last fall, it proved a lifesaver. Disasters do not need competition from ratings-hungry storm chasers.

By naming routine winter storms Gandalf, or Khan, the Weather Channel is trying to become the news, and is changing behavior. Triton, another name given another typical winter storm, was said to be “targeting California” not long ago, like North Korean nukes.

The effect is to trivialize the real thing, to put breathless graphics and histrionics ahead of science and public safety. You saw the same thing happen to the stock market when Jim Cramer brought clown-show theatrics and spittle-spewing outbursts — “buy! buy! buy!” — to decisions that should call for patient analysis. Many people lost a bundle in the run-up to the last recession when they trusted stock tips from a cable television barker.

The local stations, and some newspaper video sites, have picked up on the trend. Where I live, in Seattle, the seasons are usually benign, but when a threat of a half-inch of snow beckons, the media jockeys now go into full Defcon 1 mode, naming the storm and searching the sky for first flakes. The city is paralyzed in anticipation. Alas, the locals may soon be replaced by an outsourced, and regionally tailored, model from the Weather Channel. Say goodbye to your likable chucklehead in a fashion-challenged outfit.

This week, one of the featured stories on was a piece on “how to deal with storm stress.” Here’s a suggestion in that regard, with a lovely spring forecast ahead for most of the country this weekend: don’t watch the Weather Channel. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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