At the Business of Covering Extreme Weather session at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles, we learned that 2011 was an incredible year for weather. Ok, so we knew that. But the stats are pretty mind blowing. Take these: Six states have had wettest April on record. There has been between 2-4 billion dollars impact due to flooding. There were five EF-5 tornadoes—the usual number per year is two. The Joplin, MO, tornado’s death toll made it the 7th worst tornado in history. And it’s not over yet: we’re gearing up for a heavy hurricane season with 12-18 storms expected, including eight hurricanes.
But despite all this bad weather, there’s an upshot: it’s helping to enhance the Weather Channel’s brand, says Bob Walker EVP GM of Networks and Content for the Weather Channel Companies. The company’s goal is to “keep people safe and teach them about the science of weather—what’s going on, why it’s going on, and taking people and immersing them in the weather itself.” To do that, he says, they have to go beyond a 2-D presentation of weather and take advantage of 3-D technology. “We’re a weather content company, across any platform that customers choose,” whether that’s online, through apps or on television. As digital grows—100,000 people a day are downloading the Weather Channel App, says Walker—the company is adapting to its customers’ needs.
One of those needs, meteorologists Jim Cantore, Stephanie Abrams and hurricane expert Dr. Rick Knabb insist, is bringing the weather directly to viewers. There is a need for them to be out in trenches, out in the elements—it goes beyond good TV, they assert. “People need to know the power of these storms,” says Knabb. “Radar and satellite only tell part of the story. It’s a very important educational experience.” Walker agrees, and says that it adds authenticity and “helps people understand the magnitude of what’s happening.” “I try to inform people as best I can,” says Abrams.
Understandably, the intense year in weather has taken its toll on the experts. With near non-stop coverage, says Cantore, “I was in the studio for a whole week twice.” But even though it’s “go, go, go,” says Stephanie Abrams, “we’re helping people.”
Beyond scheduling and traveling, the job takes its toll emotionally. “We want to save everyone out there,” says Cantore, so at times, “it’s a bummer.” In Hurricane Katrina, I had to point at things and say, ‘this is not going to be here in 24 hours.’ The mayor came to me and said, ‘Cantore, why are you saying that, it’s scaring people.’ But I was saying it because it’s true!” After the storms can be difficult as well, he says, since people want to share their stories and talk about the tragedies.
On the direction of global warming and humanity’s contribution to it, the panelists didn’t have any clear predictions—or definitions. “We’re trying to use ‘climate change’ rather than ‘global warming,’” says Abrams. “So many factors contribute to the weather. But we do know the earth has warmed.” Knapp adds, “It would be hard to make a case that we’re having no effect. But we’re still learning how we’re having an effect on our environment.” Are the effects of climate change reversable? It’s unclear, says Cantore. “Everyone wants to know if we have tipped the bucket over. If man has done this, can we get anything back? That we just don’t know.”
So how has reporting on weather changed over the years? “It was a lot easier to park satellite trucks!” says Cantore. “Now, the early bird gets the worm.” And digital communication has changed their world of reporting. Approximately 40 million people have downloaded the Weather Channel app. And according to the Weather Channel’s research, 90 percent of the U.S. population checks the weather every day. Now that’s something to capitalize on.