Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Local TV rejoices as hurricane season heats up

Sorry for the lack of posts. I've been occupied with other things. Anyway...

Gotta love the weather in Houston. Right after I post that July is technically a hotter month than August, we see our hottest days of the year. I think August of 2007 will actually end up being hotter than July of 2007, since rains kept temperatures relatively low during July. Those rains, of course, have since disappeared.

But the heat is old news. Apparently, somebody reminded Mother Nature that it was hurricane season, and the tropics are the big story right now. Tropical Storm Erin will pay a visit to the lower Texas coast sometime this morning. Tropical Storm Dean is out in the Atlantic, gaining strength as it churns towards the Lesser Antilles. It will probably become a hurricane and enter the Caribbean by the end of the week. Where it goes from there is still anyone's guess, of course, but it definitely poses a threat to Houston and requires careful tracking.

Judging by the evening newscasts, the local television stations couldn't be happier. It doesn't matter if it's a Cat 5 bearing down on Galveston or a tropical storm making landfall south of Corpus Christi: these guys live for tropical weather! Viewers are treated to fancy "TROUBLE IN THE TROPICS" graphics and "team coverage" of reporters stationed all along the coast from South Padre Island to Galveston and cliché footage of surfers taking advantage of the storm-generated waves or hardware store shoppers stocking up on plywood, batteries and bottled water. Meteorologists suddenly start using phrases like "upper-level wind shear" and "tropical cyclone heat potential" when explaining hurricane activity. The average local TV viewer might not really understand what the hell Tim, Frank, Dr. Neil or Dr. Jim is talking about, but it sure does sound important! And the anchors continually say things like "let's hope it doesn't hit here" or "keep your fingers crossed that it veers away" when, let's face it, they probably don't really mean it.

The closer a storm gets, after all, the more time people spend in front of the the television to get updates. I'd love to see a plot of a hurricane's proximity to the Houston area with a plot of local TV news Neilsen ratings during the same time period. I wouldn't be surprised if they look somewhat similar. The minute that storm turns away, however, is the minute people local viewers start breathing a sigh of relief and flipping over to Sportscenter.

Not to be overly cynical about the local television news media. These guys have homes and families here too, after all, and they probably would rather that a hurricane not come through and wreak havoc. Besides, if a big storm comes too close people will start evacuating the city and viewership will actually decline.

But you're just not going to convince me that the local TV affiliates don't love hurricanes on at least some level. It's rather clear, given the way they cover them, that they do. And that's not necessarily a bad thing; aside from the bump in viewers that they provide, hurricanes also create a sense of thrill and purpose that many station employees, being humans, secretly enjoy. There has to be that rush of adrenaline as a tropical system approaches and the news director starts dispatching reporters and cameras to different locales and the weather team starts spending more time on the phone with the National Hurricane Center and the folks in the graphics department start working on flashy intro screens and the invitations for interviews go out to the Red Cross or the county's Emergency Management District.

I've been watching the local TV news my entire life, and it's obvious to me that nothing - not a multi-alarm high-rise fire, nor a major municipal scandal, nor election night, nor even the Astros winning the pennant - is treated quite the same as an approaching hurricane. That's why they'll do a good job tracking Erin and Dean, and that's why we'll keep watching.

Another guy who will do a good job watching the tropics is the Chronicle's Eric Berger. I'll be spending a lot of time reading his blog from now until hurricane season winds down.

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