Blanketing the D.C. Area with Snow Coverage

You know it’s a big weather day when the TV telestrators come out early and often. There’s Bob Ryan (or Doug Hill or Sue Palka) with the moving pen, showing viewers which way the animated, four-color bands are gliding over the 3-D topo map, courtesy of Doppler XT.

You know it’s big when you’ve got “team” coverage, multiple live “remotes” of reporters standing on snowy freeway overpasses or near the dune-sized drifts on downtown corners. Or when the school closing information appears at the bottom of the screen for hours, long after anyone would even try to go to school. Or when the same long shot of the snow-obliterated beltway keeps cascading into view.

Weather has always been a big local TV story, but now it’s bigger and more important than ever. It’s more than a story, actually, It’s a stations “brand” – a way for Channel 4 or 5 or 7 or 9 to affix its identity and establish its credibility with viewers. That’s why Ryan, the area’s senior weathercaster, always sits at something called “Stormcenter4, even when it’s 80 degrees in July. Someday, Channel 4 figures, there’s going to be another storm, and you’ll remember who’s got a Stormcenter.

“We don’t want to overplay it but surely we don’t want to underplay it, either, replies Katherine Green, Channel 5’s news director. “We try to warn people and give them every possible alert to impending bad weather. You don’t want to oversell it.”

But usually they do, asserts Herb Brubaker, a former NBC News producer who now trains on-air anchors and reporters. “It’s gotten out of control,” he says. “All you need is one suggestion that it’s going to snow and they crank the machinery up.”

By Brubaker’s reckoning, TV reporters not only just talk about the weather, they actually wind up doing something about it. He says, for example, the frequent shots of people dashing for a loaf of bread at the Giant create further panic. “It all just feeds on itself,” he says.

That wouldn’t be so bad if every storm were as big a blockbuster as yesterday’s, says Brubaker. But most aren’t. And you wouldn’t know it, he says, by watching the TV news.