By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; C01
Oh, the weather outside is frightful -- but do we really need four TV stations to tell us that? And do we need them to tell us that for 12 straight hours?
As they have before, the Washington area's TV stations plan to be in full battle mode Saturday, preempting their regular schedules to go deep into snowvertime with weather coverage. Count on: swirling satellite maps, shots of plows snaking over overpasses and cars struggling to escape the deep powder. Plus, Doug, Sue, Bob and Topper from frosty sunup to frigid sundown.
Is all this really necessary? Wouldn't, say, an update every half-hour suffice? Or maybe a constant crawl across the bottom of the screen, updating closings or safety information?
TV folks will tell you there's no other way: that wall-to-wall storm coverage is a public service, an obligation, a selfless act of civic journalism. "When a situation like this presents itself, people need timely information," says Camille Edwards, vice president of news for WRC (Channel 4). "They need to know what to do, what's open, what's closed, when it's going to stop. . . . People know they can count on us to help them get through this."
But nonstop TV weather coverage says as much about TV news as it does about the weather. With a massive snowbound audience at home, the stations pour on the reporting to position themselves for more than just one passing storm. One of the goals of going live all day, in fact, is to reinforce the station's weather "brand" and to establish the station as the go-to place for weather reporting long after the last flake has fallen.
Weather, notes Edwards, is "the driving factor" behind viewers' choice of local newscasts. That's why stations here and across the nation promote the depth and quality of their weather reports relentlessly, particularly "extreme" weather such as blizzards and tornadoes. After a storm passes, they'll also roll out promos bragging about how well they covered the news.
Although some viewers complain that hours of coverage means missing a favorite soap opera or a basketball game, extended weather reports can pay dividends later. "I don't think people sit and watch all 12 hours [of storm news], but they know it's there, and . . . they appreciate it," says Doug Hill, veteran weather forecaster for WJLA (Channel 7).
The weather is so critical to audience building that a station in Honolulu, KGMB, reached the top spot in its market after it began calling itself "Hawaii's Severe-Weather Station" in 2004 and began emphasizing stories about high winds, mudslides and storms, says Jim Willi, a principal at Audience Research & Development, a Fort Worth-based consulting firm. Willi's firm came up with the slogan for the station.
"The general manager said, 'Are you crazy? This is Hawaii,' " Willi says. "But the fact is, if something big is happening with the weather, you'll start at your favorite station. If they don't have what you're looking for, you'll go somewhere else."
For that reason, stations tend to limit, but not eliminate, the number of commercials they air during long stretches of snow coverage. The idea is to keep viewers hanging around for as long as possible. If the coverage goes away, "the viewers will, too," Willi says.
That makes a day of nonstop snow news an expensive proposition for local stations. Stations tend to press just about everyone in their newsrooms into service. Overtime budgets spike, as do food and housing expenses for employees who are put up overnight at hotels. "The people who run the Hyatt are loving this," says Bill Lord, who manages WJLA (Channel 7). "We've never done a dollar-by-dollar analysis, but our expenses are fairly steep. But this is a special event, and we feel it's worth it."
Although blowout weather coverage seems to have been around as long as TV itself, it actually is a more recent invention. Until the 1980s, it was difficult for stations to broadcast live from multiple locations outside the studio, making those overpass reports problematic. Weather maps were primitive ("a magnetic board," says Willi, laughing) and highway traffic cameras were rare.
What's more, until a few years ago, detailed ratings came out only during four sweeps months (November, February, May and July), which meant that there wasn't much financial incentive to wipe out all the commercials and go wall-to-wall for a storm occurring in, say, January.
What's changed since then, too, is that the TV landscape has become more competitive, with cable and satellite channels and Web sites fighting for viewers alongside traditional local stations. In this hotly contested environment, all-day weather coverage gives local broadcasters a chance to differentiate themselves, says Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA (Channel 9).
"What does a local broadcaster have over CNN or MSNBC or Fox News? Localism," he says. "We can't cover Haiti at the same level as CNN. But by the same token, they can't cover this snow event in Washington the way we can."
Adds Horlick, "TV stations have learned that when there's a big ongoing story in their communities, they need to be covering it, or their competition will. There's an expectation now that if there's news, you'd better have it."