Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The TV Stations' Dilemma

Yesterday, I heard two talk radio personalities in Topeka complain about interrupting the NCAA basketball championship game for tornado warnings Monday evening.  During my career in in television, I had to deal with similar situations (i.e., a severe storm during a high profile television program). I'd like to offer some advice to all concerned.
At left is the conventional radar image valid at the time in question which is showing two fierce thunderstorms moving into the towns of Washington and Marysville, Kansas. The Washington storm shows strong rotation and giant (i.e., larger than 2.5" in diameter) hail. At right is the Doppler display of the internal wind structure. A tornado warning is in effect. The Marysville storm shows large hail (1") and some rotation along with a hook echo that might indicate a tornado. So, from the TV meteorologist's point of view you have two life-threatening and certainly destructive thunderstorms.

Published research reveals that more than 90% of the population gets its severe weather warnings from television.  So, the meteorologist interrupts the game.  These storms are not "in the middle of nowhere," they are in populated areas. I agree with the meteorologist's decision to interrupt the important game. Lives were at stake.

The announcers went on to complain that "[the weathercaster] went on and on and on." This complaint may have some validity (I wasn't watching, since I live in the Wichita TV market).  I've noticed a tendency in recent years for some television stations to turn their storm coverage into a promotion for their weather department.  I suggest that the meteorologist break into whatever is on the air the second the tornado warning is issued and explain the situation fully which should take 60 to 90 seconds, then get off.  The "crawls" or "supers" at the bottom of the screen can convey the essential information until the next time out or other break in the game. Then, the meteorologist should go on camera again.

The exception would be if the meteorologist had live video or an on-the-scene storm chaser who could actually describe the situation.  We know from published research that on-the-scene verification enhances the effectiveness of the warning.

Now here is the rest of the story: While large hail was reported, as far as we know, no tornadoes touched down. For some reason, even though there was strong rotation, it didn't make it to the ground. We meteorologists don't know why some storms that present themselves as capable of producing tornadoes do not.

That said, the TV meteorologist doesn't know this ahead of time, so had to treat this as a dangerous tornado because, most of the time, a radar presentation like this would result in exactly that.

I know it is frustrating to have your program interrupted if you are in clear skies 50 miles away from the storms. But, you would want the program interrupted if the tornado was threatening you.  If you feel you must call the station to complain, please wait until the storms are out of the area. You can't believe how busy TV meteorologists are during a tornado situation and they just don't have time to talk when in crisis mode.


  1. Yes, that is an amazing hail spike. For non-meteorologists, it is the blue area pointing northwest behind the storm on the left image. When a hail spike is present, there is a virtual 100% chance of damaging hail.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.