Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Commentary: "wall-to-wall" severe weather coverage

An excellent post on Bamawx.com's blog (which I encourage you to read), and the responses posted therein, have prompted me to comment here on the practice of "wall-to-wall," or "long-form," severe weather coverage. Mike Wilhelm, who does an exceptional job at Bamawx.com, took some heat for his commentary supporting the practice of long-form coverage when portions of a TV station's coverage area area under Tornado Warnings. His post was prompted by a sports radio talk show host in Birmingham who dedicated an entire show to, basically, slamming OCM's (on-camera Meteorologists) for keeping the public informed when threatening weather approaches. I know only a little about the nature of wall-to-wall coverage in Alabama, but I do know that due to their propensity for severe weather, and past weather events that have affected highly-populated areas, they have a history of long-form severe weather coverage that may be second to none, at least in this part of the country.

With respect to wall-to-wall coverage in the Memphis DMA (viewing area), a couple of the main players have embraced this form of broadcasting when a Tornado Warning is in effect within their DMA. At least one has gone "no-hype" and will use crawls and other graphical methods of displaying the information, up to the point where a fairly significant population center is under direct threat, at which point they break-in to regular programming. Wall-to-wall coverage has always been a hot button issue - there are very few people that do NOT have an opinion on the matter. I would guess that it is a little more accepted right now in the Memphis metro area after the tornadoes struck Shelby County last February, though heightened awareness and acceptance of the practice will certainly decline with time, unless another unfortunate event were to occur.

The problem with this form of coverage, as I see it, is that generally a very small percentage of the viewing audience is under direct, or indirect, threat from the storm(s) being covered. This tends to upset or even anger the rest of the audience. However, to those people whose lives are at risk, the coverage could be a vital and life-saving necessity. I like to equate it to the guy who is walking down the beach littered with starfish and is throwing them back one by one. He'll never save the lives of every starfish, but to the ones that he throws back in the water, his act was vitally important. It is a tough choice to make - when to interrupt programming and risk many frustrated viewers, in order to get life-saving information to the few. (I don't think it's nearly as tough a choice, and I would guess the hate mail goes down precipitously, when a tornado is bearing down on Memphis and TV stations go wall-to-wall.)

So, my opinion on the matter is this, and it may be unpopular: Long-form severe weather coverage should be employed when a particularly dangerous situation is imminent that directly threatens the lives of the people who reside or work in the area affected. I am in favor of split-screen graphics that continue to show regular programming in a small window, but the audio belongs to the OCM. As soon as the threat diminishes, return to regular programming. Naturally, a Tornado Warning falls within my definition above, as would a "very severe" thunderstorm (one known or highly suspected to contain life-threatening wind like Hurricane Elvis, for example) impacting a population center. I also believe that as the threat and risk to life increases, so does the likelihood of moving from split-screen to full-screen coverage. In this day of high-tech internet-driven media, I also firmly believe that the internet should be a prime source of weather information that is CURRENT, TOPICAL, and ACCURATE. MemphisWeather.net is a prime example and the TV stations should be on that leading edge as well (and many are). I hope that you will continue to see the value in what MemphisWeather.net provides in this regard.

So what do you think? Is it too much? Not enough? What factors should be taken into account? Feel free to agree or disagree with me - it's how we as providers learn what the public wants and needs.


Kevin said...

Now that we are very close to the "digital" age with all of the stations with at least 3 streams (feeds), I see no reason that everybody will be able to accommodated. If you want to watch a sports program, reality show or whatever, the broadcasters would simply put this on one of the feeds and the W2W coverage on one of the others. Seems to me to be a fantastic solution where the broadcasters can now cover local events while those not affected can continue un-restricted.

Meteorologist Erik Proseus said...

Excellent points, Kevin! I agree with you whole-heartedly. In addition, with 100+ channels in many people's homes these days, finding something other than weather coverage should not be difficult. Of course, "my game" is only broadcast on the station with long-form weather coverage!

Thanks for your comment!

Mike Wilhelm said...

Thanks for your kind words about my blog and post!

Kevin said...

Of course, "my game" is only broadcast on the station with long-form weather coverage!That is exactly my point. For example all of the local Memphis stations are all broadcasting over the air (not counting on cable, satellite etc) at least 3 separate feeds *-1, *-2 & *-3 all with distinct and separate programming. There is nothing to stop them from using *-2 to do their long-form coverage while maintaining standard broadcasting with maybe a runner at the bottom stating for more information tune to... Taking this a a step farther if we were to have more than one event affecting one broadcast area, dedicate separate streams for each area.

I believe the only downside is cable and satellite are not currently required to carry the sub-channels.

Michael Detwiler said...

Carry the long-form coverage, I say....it is much more important than, say, something like Desperate Housewives or Guiding Light.

For those who get mad over wall-to-wall coverage, I'm not sympathetic. Safety is much more important than living in a fiction world of television shows.

Wall TV said...

Thanks for this informative post

John Maddox said...

What is often forgotten is that licenses of television and radio stations have provisions in them that they are licensed to inform and keep the community safe. Not to show House, ER, etc.

I think there is only one station in town that really goes overboard with the WTW weather coverage- so I just watch a different station.

Meteorologist Erik Proseus said...

That's an excellent point, John, and one I hadn't considered. I'm sure the stations are trying to find that balance between paying the bills with shows/advertising that the public wants to see, and keeping the public informed and safe. Of course, weather has always been one of the biggest draws on local newscasts too, so that also plays into their decisions. Thanks for your comments!