There was a moment around 8:30 p.m. Thursday night (06-11-09) when I thought it was going to be an awful night in Austin, Texas. KEYE TV (CBS) Chief Meteorologist Susan Vessell identified a “hook” echo or “notch” cloud over Cedar Park, which could be a tornado. Seconds later Jim Spencer at KXAN TV (NBC) also saw the signature cloud just before NOAA weather radio put out a tornado warning. As it turned out, this late spring super-cell cluster of storms was severe, but not disastrous. It turned out to be an interesting measure of how local TV responds. Further, it is evidence that the viewing public needs local television. The Internet, while helpful, cannot now perform at the same level as local TV when there is breaking news. It can supplement. That’s all right now.
Number One KVUE TV (ABC) had a conundrum. They were broadcasting the National Basketball finals on this last night of analog television. News managers had to decide whether this weather phenomenon was dangerous and weigh that against an audience of aroused basketball fans. So, for much of the night, KVUE compromised. They did a split screen with weather and the game. Some of the time there was audio from Mark Murray, KVUE TV chief meteorologist. Some of the time there was game audio. Some of the time, the game was squeezed down in the corner of the screen. Other times, they chose to preempt the game. These are difficult decisions, and there is money on the line. If they went all-weather-all-the-time, they would be blowing out commercials.
KEYE TV was the first on the air, even before NOAA weather radio! Susan Vessell was calm, concise, and engaging. KEYE TV still has the best weather graphics, and Vessel knows how to use them. KXAN TV was on next with an alert. After a break and a little programming, they came back on to stay.
KXAN TV won the night. Why? It was a team effort. Jim Spencer was joined by colleagues Natalie Stoll and Mary Lee. Each took on a task as the evening progressed and performed well downloading viewer pictures and taking calls. Further, KXAN used all of its toys. The station has the second-best weather graphics, and Spencer is a wizard with them. I swear the man can talk forever and always have something to say. KXAN also used its exclusive Llano tower camera and its exclusive “Live Strike” graphics, showing real-time lightning strikes. Why is it exclusive? Morning weather man Shawn Rutherford is a co-inventor of the software. No other station in the world has it! KXAN also used broadband for at least one live shot—a good idea when there is lightning.
KEYE also used broadband. KEYE TV followed the storms all of the way through the metro area. Susan Vessell’s only on-air help seemed to be solo anchor Judy Maggio at the anchor desk. Maggio did telephone interviews and tossed to live shots.
What about the other media? KVUE’s Mark Murray sounded like he was losing his voice. He eventually got some help, but they had little more than their third-rate graphics and software. Toward 10 p.m., KVUE aired pictures from viewers off of the Internet.
KTBC TV (Fox) was almost flippant about its coverage. Its maps looked very similar to KVUE’s. KTBC stuck with programming for much of the evening and ran a crawl across the bottom of the screen. KTBC TV woke up around 8:30 p.m. when there were reports of twisters on the ground in the area of US Highway 183 and Anderson Mill in North Austin.
Time-Warner’s News 8 was not up to the task. Meteorologist Maureen McCann did not seem to take the situation very seriously when things started brewing around 7:30 p.m. She may have been having a bad day. More, the News 8 weather graphics were, well, lame, compared to others in town. Further, she did not seem to have any help. You go with what you’ve got, but if you don’t have much it shows. Credit is due Time-Warner in that they did run timely, bilingual crawls over programming such as the Texas Ranger’s baseball game.
At 9:58 p.m. KXAN’s Jim Spencer walked watchers through the evening with deft precision stepping the radar screens as the storm cluster marched across the metro area. It dove-tailed into the late news.
KEYE kept showing the current weather past the top of the hour driving its audience into the news. I don’t know what happened during their news, but Gregg Watson ended up doing an approximate ten-minute interview with the Bertram Police Chief. It was a good interview, but I rather doubt that was the plan. Gregg Watson kept it rolling.
Meantime, KXAN’s Shannon Wolfson kept losing her live shot. Leslie Rhode and Robert Hadlock rolled with it back at the station.
Does all of this heat and light translate into ratings? My opinion of who was best may be blasted to oblivion by the overnights. Let the record show, however, this night I did watch every broadcast or telecast medium in town.
[A note about the photos: What you see on the air depends on the TV station’s software and how well the staff uses it. Looking at four screens, one might think he was seeing different storms at times, but the staff was shifting through different sensitivities and different programs to describe the storm. So, when I rate the weather graphics, I’m talking about these variables.]
© Jim McNabb, 2009