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Weather, or not
Big storms -- real or otherwise -- are media money-makers
BY CHRIS BARRY

Ever wonder who in the TV media decides to activate the " SnowCenter " mode? Hereís a little secret: Business managers, not staff meteorologists, make the call to launch extended storm coverage.

The decision allows stations to flaunt their super-high-tech radar and satellite images. Plus itís a chance to show off their network of weather watchers, so everyone knows how much snow Caribou is getting. And storms provide the on-air staff with the occasion to wear nice sweaters.

Profit, however, is the real reason for the extra weather reporting. Storms create more opportunities to sell the " SnowCenter is brought to you by . . . " tagline. Thatís why management often calls for the sweaters when just a speckle of the white stuff is falling.

(When I worked at WGAN (560 AM) radio in the mid-1990s, an advertising client threatened to cancel a contract because the greedy management team launched the stationís " Road Patrol " ó and charged the client for ads ó whenever Southern Maine received a mere dusting.)

The regionís television and radio stations have forgotten we live in northern New England. It takes a real Maine snow storm ó a foot and half or preferably two ó to shut down our little world. These days, the media thinks six inches is enough to start a wave of hysteria.

Suddenly itís the news anchorís job to tell the public which bean suppers and PTA meetings are cancelled. Overworked teams of reporters/cameras are forced to explain to viewers how the snow has made travel on the turnpike slow and sloppy. Other news crews are dispatched to supermarkets to see if the run on the bottled water and flashlights has begun. And still others set up stations in downtown squares in order to inform the anchors ó and those of us at home ó that it is indeed, snowing. All these reports are book-ended by the big-voiced announcer reminding viewers that Central Maine Power is paying for the snowflake-to-snowflake coverage.

Of course, media exists to sell ads, so you canít fault a company for trying to make money. But the salesmanship of the weather blurs the line of news and marketing and entertainment. Every station touts itself as the " leader " or the " best " or " most accurate " to promote their forecasts. Any use of such subjective claims should be considered a lie.

Obviously, due to the high cost of owning a weather satellite, all TV meteorologists use the same data to make their predictions. They also check their guesses versus the speculation of the National Weather Serviceís team of forecasters. And the prophesies are almost always identical.

The only real way to rate the weather broadcast is by personality. I watch Dave Santoro on Channel 13 rather than Joe Cupo on Channel 6 because I prefer Daveís demeanor. They both prognosticate the same, but I trust Daveís forecast because he seems friendly and real. Itís all a matter of taste.

And thatís what makes modern media so lame. TV stations value sparkle over content. Itís amazing how much time and money is devoted to covering and predicting the weather, while real stories go under-reported. (Who is to blame for the stateís billion-dollar budget deficit? Will UNUM-Provident survive? Why canít the cops slow the flow of heroin to our communities?)

Meanwhile, back on the tube, weíre spending four minutes of every 20-minute newscast on weather. And the first minute is usually devoted to weather gone by. I donít need to be told about this morningís rain. I was there. I got wet. Also bothersome is the repetition. The current forecasting style is to make general predictions for the next five days using the maps, then retell the forecast again, this time with graphics.

In reality, we just need to know what will happen in the next couple of days. Predications more long term ó especially here in New England ó are bound to change. The endless guessing ó usually at the request of the smiling anchor ó for weekend and holiday forecasts long before itís feasible is just more of the time-wasting babble and banter which plagues local newscasts.

I donít have anything against meteorologists, by the way. I think the science of weather forecasting is interesting and is important to the handful of Mainers who still work out-of-doors or on the water. Itís just that I want to see more news, not less, when I tune in for the six oíclock edition. In the near future, however, we might see a shift away from the weather on local TV.

Thatís because there is a more specific and timely way to get forecasts. Itís a thing called " the Internet. " Countless sites and emailed reports have up-to-the-minute forecasts, so you donít have to wait around for the news or listen to predictions for parts of the state you donít give a damn about. Technophobes can always get the National Weather Service forecast by phone at 976-1212. Weather junkies can tune into cableís Weather Channel. Soon, I predict, local TV weather-centers will become as irrelevant as the weather page in the local daily newspaper.

(The Portland Press Herald will continue to report on the weather, however. In a January 26 column on the topic, editor Jeanine Guttman explained the newspaper is dedicated to providing the best weather stories possible and " to find a new angle to an old story. " A week-and-a-half later, the PPH ran a piece on the front page of the local section about a storm that missed Maine, complete with a color photo.)

I wonder how long it will take for television advertisers ó and station managers ó to realize viewers arenít tuning in for the weather. It will be interesting to see what TV sales teams dream up as replacement money-makers. I wonder if Central Maine Power will be willing to sponsor exposés on government waste?

Chris Barry can be reached at portlandmediatips@hotmail.com


Issue Date: February 13 - 20, 2003
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