Grid And Bear It: Why Irene Was The Perfect Media Storm
It all depends on your perspective, where you live, and the metric you use to measure it. And the metric I heard mentioned most often was not wind speed, rainfall, property damage, or even loss of life. It was the number of people that were knocked off the grid. That makes a great deal of sense, because while we all fear the devastation of natural disasters, few of us experience it directly. We watch it impact the lives of others, vicariously, from the comfort of our television sets. Until we lose power, that is, and scramble for flashlights, batteries -- or, if we're lucky to still have one stashed in junk pile drawer, a transistor radio to follow the news the way our grandparents did.
Okay, so most of us now have smartphones capable of accessing the mobile Web, but they're only as good as their batteries are, so in our contemporary media times, the loss of electrical power is something many of us do experience, and consequently has become the primary metric for measuring the number of households -- and people -- displaced by a tropical storm.
I don't have stats on the total number of households knocked off the media grid by Irene, but I do have them for my state, Connecticut, because the local TV news teams cited them over and over again as we watched the storm's approach and its aftermath. At last media count, Irene knocked a record 650,000 households off the grid in the Nutmeg State, beating the next biggest grid-buster, 1985's Hurricane Gloria, by 145,000 households, according to The Hartford Courant. That stat is particularly noteworthy, because Irene technically wasn't even a hurricane when she landed in Connecticut, a state that has only recorded seven genuine hurricanes beginning in 1858.
The effects of Irene are telling in so many ways I cannot even begin to get into in a column that supposedly should be about television, the way we cover it, and the way it covers us. And if you believe what some respected scientists have been saying about climate change, we can expect to see many more Irene-like scenarios in the future -- powerful erratic weather patterns that disrupt our normal existence. So maybe the Grid Index is the right way to measure their magnitude -- a Richter Scale, if you will, for the media age.
What I do know is that media plays an inextricable role in the way we experience things -- including weather-related things -- how we record them, how we remember them, and how we act and react to them collectively as a society. And by that scale, I think the media did an incredible job leading up to Irene. And I think society did a pretty good job of listening and responding to it. Yes, in the aftermath of a hurricane downgrade, plenty of pundits are second-guessing the media industry's coverage as hype, but if Irene had gathered momentum instead of winding down by the time she hit D.C., New York, and Boston, well, it might have been a different story.
There's no question that natural disasters that strike the East Coast's mediaopolis generate disproportionate media coverage, because, well, they are striking Media Central. Just look at the impact a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia had when it rumbled through DC, New York and Boston only a week before Irene. Media events, including coverage of nature's wrath, get more media coverage when their epicenter is Media Town, because the media are located there, but also because they threaten our access to media. And as Irene's Grid Index suggests, access to media is a pretty important way of measuring things.
Speaking of which, we don't even know yet how the massive power outages caused by Irene in some of our biggest media markets will affect the way we technically measure media in those markets. At presstime, Nielsen was still scrambling to determine how many households were knocked out of its "in-tab" database (the households that produce usable data that generate TV ratings), or whether ratings for some markets might be delayed or withheld due to lower-than-acceptable in-tab levels. But a Nielsen spokesperson said it might take some time to figure that out, because Irene also coincided with a heavier-than-usual vacation schedule for Nielsen executives, creating what might be tantamount to a perfect TV ratings storm.