The weather anchors (sorry, “chief meteorologists”) are carefully baiting their hooks with juicy bits of Doppler data and shiny digital objects in hopes of reeling in viewers by the boatload during hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.
They know we will be biting. We always do. TV weathercasts are an irresistible lure, the carnival midway of TV news, even when there is no real weather news—like an impending hurricane or a hard freeze—which is most of the time.
TV producers know that we humans are hardwired by our survival instinct to be fascinated by the weather, and that if they build a 3-minute weathercast out of 30 seconds of news, we will watch. Even on a clear day, they can forecast forever.
“If you include all the bells and whistles they want branded into your head, seconds become minutes and weather forecasts become much longer than in the early days of television news in Orlando,” says Mark Logus, a professor of political science at Valencia College who worked as an assignment editor at three Orlando TV stations and was assistant news director at a Virginia station.
On two meteorologically uneventful days in March, I timed the weathercasts on Orlando’s four major stations—WFTV-Channel 9, WESH-Channel 2, WKMG-Channel 6 and WOFL-Channel 35. (Just the main segment on the 11 p.m. news, not the teases strewn throughout the newscast.)
The segments averaged about 3 minutes. Average time devoted to the next-day forecast: 22 to 25 seconds. Some were as brief as 10 and 15 seconds. I was reminded of the old commercial for Hawaiian Punch with “10 percent real juice.”
These numbers come as no surprise to Deborah Day, a Winter Park psychologist who travels a lot as an expert witness in trials. She listens for the forecast on TV while getting ready in the morning. Day tunes out the “repeated and irrelevant” blah-blah until the talking head finally divulges the information she’s been waiting for.
“What clothes should I wear? Is it going to rain? Should I put an umbrella in the car? I don’t care about the other stuff—only the information relevant for today,” she says. Day gets what she needs in 30 seconds, tops.
I also timed the weather forecasts on two Orlando news radio stations, WDBO and WFLA. Minus TV’s toolbox of mesmerizing toys—computer-generated clouds, flowing satellite radar, candy-colored graphics, temperature and wind maps, live shots from the beach, sunset photos submitted by viewers, video of cars sliding across the ice in Ohio—the weather on radio was a 10-second story.
On TV, vapid schmoozing helps turn the 10-second story into “Search for Tomorrow’s Forecast.”
“News stations today spend much more time talking about the personal lives of their on-air people and it almost always takes place during the weather segment,” Logus says.
“He detailed his car, so we knew it was going to rain,” said WFTV news anchor Martie Salt, glancing at chagrined co-anchor Greg Warmoth. Later, Salt reacted to the predicted overnight low: “Forty-seven! How about that? I put away all the logs, too.”
But the main cause of segment bloat is pointless detail like this from WESH’s Jason Brewer: “There’s a little shower creeping up here across Sumter County. It’s just going to track right down the turnpike. There’s Ponce Inlet, and we have these little showers just curling up the coastline, up to Flagler Beach here. Along the immediate coastline we’re talking about a few hundredths of an inch coming down.”
Yes, folks, he said hundredths of an inch.
Another time-eater is the hourly temperature chart. Is there any earthly reason we need to know it will be 69 at 10 a.m., 73 at noon, 76 at 2 p.m., also 76 at 4 p.m., and 73 at 6 p.m.? Patients in the ICU are not monitored this closely.
It’s bad enough that TV forecasts gobble time that should be used for reporting real news. They also pose a threat to our mental health, Day says. “We see a lot of kids with weather anxiety. And with hurricane season it increases dramatically.”
Hurricane season is the grandest carnival midway ride of all. It is to TV weathercasting what Kim Kardashian is to tabloids: the gift that keeps on giving.
Brace yourself for six months of feverish tracking of every “disturbance” off the west coast of Africa that could become a tropical depression that might develop into a hurricane, which could strike Florida—10 days from now. Depending on which one of six tracking models you believe. Apocalypse Now? How about Apocalypse Nah? Stay tuned!
Email Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org