Hurricane Michael has temporarily elbowed Hurricane Trump out of the headlines — actually, that’s probably more wish than reality. However, as news operations shift resources toward covering the massive Category 4 storm in the Florida panhandle, countless news reporters and weathercasters will drape themselves with station-logo ponchos — the better to get drenched and steel themselves against 155 mph winds, all in the name of a kickass live shot.
In the scheme of things, it’s silly: Everyone knows it’s really, really windy outside. And it’s clearly dangerous; as TV writer Kevin Biegel shared on Twitter, “Can the reporters in Florida please stop with the weather porn of standing in the wind? Growing up in Florida we knew of a woman whose boyfriend was decapitated by a piece of plywood in a hurricane — don’t go outside, you dolts.”
Logic be damned: If there’s a chance to abandon the safety of their studios and risk being blown away by a monsoon, the lure is irresistible. In TV news, violent storms are nature’s car chases. They’re dramatic, they’re graphic, and they’re infinitely more exciting to watch than a barometer.
Weather reporters face a particular challenge in the age of information: With weather, information is pretty much all there is. It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s wet or dry, and you can get all the details you’d ever want on your smartphone apps. However, TV is a visual medium, and weather reporters will grasp any opportunity for a great optic — which may be why we saw the Weather Channel’s Mike Seidel bracing against serious wind gusts while covering Hurricane Florence — with two people in the background strolling upright.
And then there’s times that the outdoors just won’t oblige. When that happens. the Weather Channel’s graphics department certainly will. (The Weather Channel was in storm mode and unavailable for comment.)
At one point, the Weather Channel attempted to hold on to viewership by airing more weather-related documentaries and reality shows — but loyal viewers balked, and cable and satellite operators clashed with the channel over that direction. In 2014, DirecTV dropped Weather Channel for three months over a contractual dispute; when the two sides made up, part of the deal included an agreement by the network to bring back more weather forecasts and reduce the number of reality shows.
As a result, the Weather Channel looked for other ways to hold viewers. In April, the network struck a deal with augmented reality and tech provider The Future Group to create computer-generated graphics and images to demonstrate fierce weather patterns. “Viewers will see towns and local street corners recreated in astonishing detail; meteorologically accurate tornadoes, hurricanes and the devastating effects of storm surge,” the network said last spring in announcing the deal. “They will look just as real as the images and video you see in the movies.”
Sure enough, in June the Weather Channel debuted the new immersive mixed reality technology on its flagship morning show “AMHQ.” As part of the show, Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore was seen walking through the early stages of a storm, leading to a tornado that “tore” through the building. The Weather Channel said it plans to use the technology in 80 percent of its programming by 2020.
“You know, a long time ago all we did was show maps on The Weather Channel,” Cantore said during the 2011 Television Critics Association press tour. “Map after map after map after map and nothing else. So we did a lot of research, and our viewers said, “You know, this is great that you tell us how intense these storms are, but show us. Could you show us how intense they are?”
So that’s why Cantore spent this morning ensuring that NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders wasn’t literally blown away in Panama City Beach, Fla., where they were both doing standups on a pier in gale-force winds while covering Hurricane Michael.
— Kaitlyn McGrath (@KaitMcGrathNBC) October 10, 2018
Later in the day, Cantore had his own near miss as a piece of debris flew by the weathercaster:
— David Magee (@sfslickdawg) October 10, 2018
After that incident, Cantore wore a baseball helmet.
At a 2014 TCA stop former “Good Morning America” weather anchor Sam Champion said there were several “good reasons” for braving the storm on camera.
“There are a few of us who are trained to do it and do it safely,” Champion said. “We keep our crews safe. We keep our equipment safe. We keep ourselves safe. We know what the floodplain is. We know what the winds are going to be. We know the wind direction and when that’s going to come in. And a lot of time is spent setting up a location that for us that will keep everybody safe and show you what the weather is like outside… People venture outside unless you show them a picture that looks bad and tell them, ‘You know, you really shouldn’t go outside.'”
Of course, there’s plenty of people who do go outside in hopes of capturing viral video for their own social media. “When we see them in hurricanes running out on the beach, I usually try to tell them, ‘Hey, you need to go home. And here’s the deal, that’s where we’re set up to go when this water moves up, and this water is going to move up 15 feet, and you don’t have a place where you’re safe to go because that’s your car by the picnic table.'”
For Cantore, any risks are balanced out by a sense of public service. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “In Wilmington, N.C., in the mid-’90s, I was covering a storm. And this lady walked up to me, and she said, ‘Jim, you know what? I know it’s going to get really bad, but I’m glad you’re here to take us through it.'”