It was a busy weekend for storms. More than 400 reports of severe weather peppered the Eastern Seaboard and Mid-Atlantic, the product of violent clash of two at-odds air masses. Amid the lifesaving coverage spearheaded by dozens of television meteorologists throughout the nation’s eastern third, many took to the Internet or called stations to voice their disdain. They were complaining about the interruption to something a little less than life-threatening: golf.
The sharp criticism wasn’t just from Web trolls. Celebrities spoke out, too. Well-known ESPN sports commentator Michael Wilbon took to Twitter to criticize Washington’s CBS affiliate, WUSA, for interrupting a replay of the Masters Tournament.
“Channel 9 in DC, the CBS affiliate: you people couldn’t wait until Tiger putted out (on replay granted) before you took HIM off the screen for your self-indulgent endless weather interruption?” Wilbon tweeted Sunday night at 7:39 p.m. “Really?!?!?”
Eight minutes prior, at 7:31 p.m., the National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for two counties in northern Maryland.
WUSA preempted the rerun to provide live weather coverage; the Masters had ended 4 hours and 4 minutes earlier that afternoon. Eight people died in severe weather this weekend.
Meteorologists responded in hordes, emphasizing the importance of getting critical and potentially lifesaving information out to the public as quickly as possible. WUSA’s chief meteorologist Topper Shutt posted a video response of his own to Twitter, saying that “we had to go on the air. It’s what we do. It’s one reason we’re granted an FCC license. Since [The Masters] was not live, we went on.”
Matt Serwe, meteorologist at KETV in Omaha, put it simply: “There’s no debate here: Live tornado coverage is always more important than a replay of a sporting event.”
The National Weather Service in Sterling, Va. — which issued the warning in the first place — was equally frank. “Tornado warnings save lives,” said Ray Martin, a meteorologist at the office. “It’s very important for people to know. Tornadoes are quick and deadly events. The warnings need to be disseminated immediately.”
Michael Seger is the morning meteorologist at FOX23 in Tulsa Working in the heart of Tornado Alley, Seger’s no stranger to severe coverage. He says the decision to break into programming is one that’s not taken lightly.
“I don’t think people understand that stations lose money during wall-to-wall severe weather coverage,” he wrote. “Any commercials that don’t air are ad dollars lost.”
Meteorologist Ryan Breton at News Center Maine concurs. “The goal of a warning is to warn people before the tornado forms and hits,” Breton wrote. “If we come on TV after the tornado has already hit, we’re doing it wrong.”
If it seems that your favorite on-air forecaster is being subjected to more intense barrages of hate in recent years, you’re not imagining things.
“The comments are getting more pointed and more vulgar,” Serwe said. Meteorologists nationwide have been noticing the trend, too. They blame the immediacy of social media.
“With social media, it’s easy to directly voice displeasure, anger, and even hate toward a specific person in real time,” Seger wrote.
Some even get death threats, as CBS46’s Ella Dorsey did Sunday covering the severe storms around Atlanta. “To everyone sending me death threats right now: you wouldn’t be saying a damn thing if a tornado was ravaging your home” she tweeted.
The practice of preempting regularly scheduled programming to convey critical weather information is nothing new. “It is an FCC requirement,” Seger states.
On its website, the Federal Communications Commission says its rules “require broadcasters and cable operators to make local emergency information accessible.” This includes “tornadoes … warnings and watches of impending weather changes.”
“Meteorologists and TV stations will always choose to broadcast tornado information over regular programming,” Serwe wrote. “That’s the way it’s been for over 30 years! Nothing will change.”
With the advent of modern-day technology — like streaming apps, DVRs, etc. — it’s easier than ever to catch the programming you may have missed during a weather-related cut-in. The Masters released a free app that allows viewers to stream the competition — which could even be done remotely from the safety of a tornado shelter.
A number of viewers penned comments suggesting that stations break into programming only when large population centers are at risk. Meteorologists say that’s a slippery slope.
“I can understand a viewer’s frustration if the warning is dozens of miles from where they live,” Breton says. “But if we start picking and choosing which warnings to cover based on the population affected, it’s risky business.” Rural lives are not any less precious than city lives.
Since 2000, 1,451 people have been killed by tornadoes in the United States. During the same time period, there have been zero fatalities resulting from being unable to watch a replay of golf.