You Don't Have To Be A Weather Channel To Know Which Way The Ratings Blow

For the next three or four months the Weather Channel may have some blockbuster shows up its sleeve, but it's a bit tricky when Mother Nature is your head of programming. Of course, I'm referring to hurricane season.

While nor'easters or blizzards can provide viewers with a quick disaster fix, each hurricane has the potential to become TWC's equivalent of a hit mini-series, providing intense drama over the course of many days. So many different storylines can unfold. For example, will wind shear tear the storm apart? Will a strong jet stream take it out to sea? Will the mountainous terrain over a Caribbean island dash its dreams of fame and immortality? Or will it dodge all of these obstacles and reach a notorious Katrina-like fury?

Last hurricane season was looked forward to with great anticipation by weather watchers, especially after the active 2004 and 2005 seasons. But, alas, '06 was a dramatic bust (not unlike last season's "24"). The steering wind currents were such that most hurricanes were too far out in the Atlantic to pose much of a threat. Few made it to the Gulf of Mexico, and from a ratings perspective nothing beats a Gulf hurricane because it's going to make landfall somewhere, no matter which direction it turns.



To rev up viewers, TWC has begun airing on-air promos featuring meteorologist Jim Cantore in overly righteous mode, informing us of the public service the channel performs in protecting us. News flash, Jim: every TV market has three or four weather "teams," so no one has a monopoly on hurricane coverage anymore. In fact, we're kept apprised of the entire life cycle of every single storm whether it becomes a Katrina (the "Roots" of hurricanes) or dissipates without ever strengthening beyond a tropical storm and is long forgotten. I'm afraid we'd get the same reports and warnings from the beach without you.

As far as safeguarding the nation is concerned, I'm not so sure about that. When I'm watching Jim and his colleagues reporting from a beach or hotel balcony I think to myself that it never really looks that threatening. After all, if he's able to stand out there, how bad can it really be? And recalling the god-awful traffic jams the media does such a good job of highlighting, I might hesitate about evacuating. Perhaps I'm just a jaded New Yorker, but when a reporter is in the teeth of a fierce hurricane I expect to see some trees being uprooted and houses collapsing live, on-air. Shots of road signs and traffic signals vigorously flapping in the breeze don't do it for me. Yes, seeing Al Roker nearly get blown off the balcony of his hotel a few years ago was fun -- but it still didn't deliver the "money shots" I'm looking for.

And once the storm strikes, it often seems as if Jim and crew get all smarmy by dissing the storm, talking about how it turned at the last minute, it could have been worse, yada, yada, yada... implying that evacuees were suckers for driving all the way to Montana. And after a category 4 or 5 storm weakens to a category 2 or just a 1, TWC's on-air team can hardly mask their disdain for it. I'm also perplexed why winds from a "weak" hurricane are dismissed -- but staff meteorologists get all goose-bumpy if a thunderstorm in Kansas produces wind gusts of that strength. A peculiar double standard, I'd say. Granted, not as powerful or exciting as 150-mph gusts, but give 75-mph winds their due (the residents of Westchester can attest to their destructiveness after being pummeled by last week's thunderstorms).

For me the best part of hurricane season is the early tracking and projections of where the storm might hit and all of the attendant anticipation that goes with it. When it's first forming far off in the Azores it always seems as if the projected path has the storm striking Miami, Houston or New York, creating a frisson of excitement at the prospect of New Orleans-like catastrophe on perhaps an even-larger scale. There's nothing like putting the fear of God in big population centers to generate ratings. And I don't know who gets more charged up, the viewers or reporters as they wonder if his/her Anderson Cooper moment might come to pass. But usually, as the days go by, the true path begins revealing itself, often indicating landfall in some rinky-dink town in the Florida panhandle or Carolina coast.

Last week's revolt by forecasters at the National Hurricane Center added another plot device to the mix. But however the season turns out, rest assured that the chief programmer has job security and will be back again next season.

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