Reading a blog entry by one of my friends still in the on-air weather business in the Wichita/Hutchinson Plus TV market brought back some painful memories. I guess someone was reading this person the riot act because the weather department had interrupted (insert program here) for a warning way out in (insert western Kansas county here). It reminded me of the incredibly difficult situation that these guys and gals are in and there are some things they aren’t allowed to say, so I will do some ‘splainin for them (with apologies to them if they don’t agree).
First, a little history of the “Wichita/Hutchinson Plus” market. There was a time (like in the 50s) when there were TV stations popping up in every medium-sized town in the nation. In Kansas, they popped up in such places as Topeka, Wichita, Hutchinson, Great Bend, Hays, Garden City, Dodge City, Oberlin, Salina, etc. Each of these stations produced their own local programs such as a “Saturday Night Sock Hop” or a local 15 minute news cast. Times were good. TV was new and everyone wanted to advertise on it. Fast-forward to the 70s and economic reality started hitting many of these “smaller” markets and to keep them from losing a TV signal altogether, networks were formed such as the Kansas State Network and Kakeland. These combined the buying and selling power of several of these stations and by the time cable TV arrived on the scenes in the 1980s, nearly every broadcast station in Kansas was being fed by programs out of Wichita. Keep in mind, this didn’t happen in every state. Nebraska for example, still has “local” stations in Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, North Platte, etc. Sometime in the 80s, the Topeka and Joplin/Pittsburg markets split off and became their own leaving the western 2/3rds of Kansas to be covered entirely by Wichita. Through the 90s, many of the smaller stations maintained a skeleton crew of a reporter/anchor, master control, sales department and production department. Now, most of those are gone as well.
Why does this all matter? First of all, there are only one or two other states (New Mexico and Utah?) that have all media controlled out of a newsroom at such a distance. Secondly, there are literally counties in ANOTHER STATE and ANOTHER TIME ZONE that count the Wichita station as their “local” station. It is a 7 hour drive from one corner of the television market to the other!
So, how to handle severe weather coverage? When everyone was using an antenna, and even after many got on cable, the network could be “split” so that a tornado warning for, say, Thomas County could just be broadcast on that tower and that cable system. It seemed like Utopia had been achieved! Then, along came satellite TV. For a while, they were just a blip on the radar (pun intended) since they only carried national channels, but they figured out how (and were eventually forced to by unfunded mandates from the government) to carry local channels and just beam them to the “home” market! Brilliant! Except for one small fact. Satellite uplink stations are VERY expensive and you have to have a lot of subscribers to cover the cost. Since the western 2/3rds of Kansas is lumped together in a single TV market, the satellite companies are ONLY required (and can only afford) to have an uplink station in Wichita. This means that everyone watching satellite (which has over an 80% penetration in some western Kansas counties) is forced to get the Wichita signal, the Wichita commercials and the Wichita weather coverage.
This caused many sleepless nights and anxious moments for the weather departments and their managers. The situation was especially hard (impossible) to explain to new General Managers and News Directors who had never seen 1) such a strange market and 2) a market where weather coverage is everything! As one of our consulting companies once said, “Lose just ONE severe weather event in Kansas, and it will take you YEARS to win back the trust of the audience.”
For a while, a hybrid was tried, and, tragically, it may have cost a life and some injuries exactly 14 years ago tonight. At my station, Dave Schaffer was working that night and saw something he REALLY didn’t like on radar. At the time, the station policy was to split the network and just broadcast on the local over-the-air and cable. He went on and stayed on for an extended period of time warning the residents of Hoisington that a tornado was rapidly developing southwest of town. Feeling he did a good job, he wondered why the phone started ringing with angry callers from the Hoisington area. As it turns out, the microwave link to the station in Great Bend had been knocked out by earlier storms and the residents heard NONE of his (undoubtedly brilliant) coverage and analysis.
I am not completely appraised on what the state of interruptions is now, but when I left a couple of years ago, it was still in a state of flux, basically to interrupt statewide during NATIONAL commercial breaks (that the local station made NO money off of), but to try and preserve as much programming and local commercial breaks as possible.
Now, before you get mad at the stations for putting money before safety, it really isn’t that way at all. I have written before about how margins are tight and what most people don’t realize is that every time weather coverage covers a local commercial, the station loses money TWICE. They keep a very detailed record of what commercials didn’t play and do what is called a “make good” at a similar time slot on a future day. By using that future time slot, another commercial cannot be sold and played, so money is lost a second time. Throw in a busy May of severe weather and it can be financially devastating for a station.
The poor weather staff just wants to do the best job they can while making the fewest number of people mad while providing timely information to those that need it. It is the Holy Grail. It can never be reached. We always used to figure that if we got the same number of emails from people who were angry that we interrupted their program too much and from those in the path of the storm that said we weren’t on enough, we were probably pretty close to being where we needed to be. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
So yes, the next time there is a tornado in a county that literally has more cattle than people that is a 5 hour drive from where you live, the local weather staff is going to interrupt your favorite program. Rest assured that when it is YOUR house, they will be there for you and those people in the “cow county” will be just as angry as you are now.