A screen shot of NBC DFW's brief cut-in at 9:06 p.m. shows chief meteorologist Rick Mitchell pointing at a "debris ball" as an EF-3 tornado tore through the northwest suburbs of Dallas on Sunday night. The station returned to a live football broadcast seconds later. (NBC DFW)

A Dallas television station apologized to viewers after airing a football game — rather than severe weather coverage — as a powerful tornado tore through the city on Sunday night.

The incident has brought renewed attention to the dilemma TV stations face when severe weather strikes during popular programming. If they break in and interrupt shows and sporting events, they can often expect a rush of calls from angry viewers. At the same time, it’s not yet clear whether, in the case of a damaging tornado, offering severe weather coverage via online streaming services is an effective alternative to traditional televised weather coverage.

The chronology

Shortly after 9 p.m. Sunday, a powerful tornado began plowing its way through the northwest suburbs of Dallas. As thousands scrambled to seek more information, they turned to their local television station for the latest.

Folks who turned on Channel 5 — NBC Dallas-Fort Worth — did not see informative weather maps or urgent pleas to seek shelter. Instead, a tense game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles flashed across the screen. There were no meteorologists, no radar plots and little indication that a 140 mph EF-3 funnel had been churning through northwest Dallas since 8:58 p.m.

At 9 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning, yet the football game played on. By 9:02 p.m., a “debris ball” appeared on radar where the tornado was lofting building supplies from damaged or destroyed structures.

It wasn’t until 9:06 p.m. that the station preempted the football broadcast to deliver a “weather alert.” This was eight minutes after the twister touched down, six minutes after a warning was issued, and two minutes after the National Weather Service described it as a “particularly dangerous” and “life-threatening” situation, in which “flying debris may be deadly.”

The destructive Dallas tornado tosses debris more than 20,000 feet high. (GR2 Analyst/Matthew Cappucci)

“Folks, we have a developing dangerous weather situation,” began NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth chief meteorologist Rick Mitchell when the station finally cut in. “We believe that this is an actual tornado that is occurring,” he said, emphasizing the twister is north of Love Field. Less than 10 seconds later, he again stated that “the National Weather Service is confirming a tornado is occurring in that area.”

Mitchell appeared rushed, however, briefly outlining safety protocol and urging viewers to a place of safe shelter. “We’re going to put a quick storm track on this,” he said, before reiterating “again, confirmed tornado in this area.” But that’s where things got cut short.

“We’re going to continue our coverage on the website as well as our app," Mitchell concluded. “Stay with NBC 5; we’ll keep you ahead of the storm.” The entire interruption — about eight minutes after the tornado touched down — lasted 62 seconds. The tornado, which at this point had carried debris to a height of more than 20,000 feet, lasted 32 minutes.

The aftermath

The backlash to the TV station’s choice to limit tornado coverage was swift.

“Pushing people to an app or website is inexcusable when they have a broadcast signal,” wrote one Twitter user. “A game isn’t more important than people’s safety and lives,” tweeted another.

The TV station may have been in a no-win situation. In recent instances when stations have interrupted programming, such severe weather coverage has elicited a barrage of hate mail directed at stations and their meteorologists.

In February, a Nashville meteorologist made a collage of the comments she received when covering tornadoes and deadly flooding. An Atlanta meteorologist said she received death threats in April. ESPN’s Michael Wilbon lambasted a D.C. station for interrupting a previously aired golf tournament on the same day. And one Dayton meteorologist decried viewers live on the air, shouting “I’m done with you people” when fans of “The Bachelorette” wrote in to complain during a violent May tornado outbreak.

If you’re a TV station faced with needing to report life-threatening weather during prime time, there’s often no easy answer on what to do. As severe weather generally affects only a fragment of a television market, it’s impossible to satisfy all viewers, regardless of the solution.

NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth released a statement Monday, writing that “we made a mistake by not immediately interrupting.”

Mike Smith, a retired AccuWeather executive, urged viewers to support the storm warning system. “If you like receiving tornado warnings regardless of content, call the station. Otherwise, the people who don’t want them will be accommodated.”

NBC 5 DFW had tried to direct folks in the affected areas online and to their mobile app. But KGNS-TV chief meteorologist Richard “Heatwave” Berler said online platforms should complement live on-air coverage — not replace it.

“Social media coverage … is not available or uncomfortable to use for a significant number of elderly folks,” Berler wrote in an email, stressing that it’s imperative that coverage be available without delay.

Matt Serwe, a meteorologist at KETV in Omaha, Neb., has worked his fair share of tornadoes. He says stations should use every means necessary to get the word out about severe weather.

“Streaming coverage should only enhance a station’s tornado coverage. It should never be an alternative” he wrote via email. “It’s great to have that tool to disseminate information. However, with a confirmed tornado potentially affecting 1.3 million people, one should use every tool possible to get lifesaving information to the people who need it the most.”

Marshall Shepherd, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Georgia, tweeted that “many elderly, low-income, and marginalized [populations] cannot access or consume digital sources/streaming.”

James Spann, the Birmingham, Ala., meteorologist widely regarded as a leader in severe weather coverage, discussed the need for stations to have coverage plans in place before an event like this so as to not be scrambling at the last minute.

“Trust me, [these conflicts] will come up,” Spann wrote in an email. “They were going to be the target of hate and rage no matter what decision they made last night. My position is to do the right thing and provide tornado coverage. A human life is more valuable than any football game or TV program. Go with wall to wall coverage, full screen, or a double box.”

He added: “The decision [Sunday] night was most likely not made in the weather office, but by those in management at some level. Rick Mitchell is an excellent meteorologist and is very good with severe weather coverage.”

Howard Bernstein, a meteorologist at WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., worked with Mitchell for years at KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City. “I see no way that not going on was his call,” said Berstein. “Rick has worked in Tornado Alley for a quarter century. His hands were tied in a way they never should have been. This will be a wake up call for a lot of stations.”

NBC 5 DFW wrote that “we look forward to regaining the trust of anyone we may have disappointed,” an apology that seems to have largely been accepted by the community.

“I think it was very admirable they admitted their mistake, and apologized" Spann wrote. “Most companies won’t do that.”

Miraculously, there were no serious injuries or fatalities, even though the EF-3 tornado carved out a destructive 16-mile path across a heavily populated region.

It’s a happy ending but will undoubtedly spur more discussion and offers potential lessons for the future.