- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

Ernest and Mary Hackett have watched the local news and weather on a TV in their kitchen every weekday morning for most of their 30-year marriage. Mrs. Hackett usually is busy preparing a big breakfast of chipped beef and gravy or french toast as part of the Upper Marlboro couple's largely unchanging ritual.
And Mr. Hackett, an auto mechanic, usually is frustrated with the forecasts on the tube. "It doesn't seem like they are any better at predicting the weather now than they were 30 years ago," he says.
Mrs. Hackett is more forgiving, figuring it's probably pretty tough to predict something so unpredictable.
Local TV news operations across the nation use the weather, as well as teases to upcoming forecasts, to hold the attention of increasingly distracted viewers.
"You can make the argument that weather is the most important part of any local newscast. There is nothing in the news that has such a widespread effect as the weather. It's the one thing that affects everyone," says Robert A. Papper, a Ball State University telecommunications professor who studies local newscasts around the country.
One reason the Hacketts' station of choice is CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9) is that she is a fan of morning forecaster Hillary Howard. "I like to see what she's wearing. And she seems very personable," Mrs. Hackett says.
The contrasting outlooks of Ernest and Mary Hackett capture the attitude of many viewers in and around Washington: The forecasters' predictions don't always turn out to be accurate, but it's hard to hold it against them.
After all, they seem like such nice people.
Most of Washington's forecasters say they don't formally track their own accuracy but are confident they get it right more often than not.
An informal survey by The Washington Times in the winter found them to be fairly accurate. The Times monitored the late local newscasts on Washington's four major TV stations for two weeks in February. Each forecaster nearly always predicted the next day's conditions accurately and hit the temperatures within a 3-degree margin.
"We're better because the technology is so much better. It's the difference between physicians who used to tap on your head to see if you had a brain tumor and doctors today who have an MRI," says Doug Hill, chief meteorologist for ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7).
Two years ago, WJLA spent more than $1 million on its "Super Doppler 7" radar system, which can zero in on weather conditions on a particular street and show it to viewers live. WUSA introduced a similar system last month.
The other major stations, NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4) and Fox affiliate WTTG-TV (Channel 5), present viewers with radar images that are six minutes old. They have no immediate plans to update the technology.
Christopher W. Pike, WJLA's president and general manager, says its radar system was put to good use in the fall, when a tornado touched down on the University of Maryland campus in College Park.
"If I was a viewer, I might think it was just another 'new and improved' product. But this really is unique, and anyone who watched us that night knows that," Mr. Pike says.

Luring viewers
Local TV news is big business. As much as half of a network affiliate's margins the percentage of revenues retained as profit come from local newscasts, which air during the time of day when affiliates get to sell their own airtime.
Most network affiliates in Washington generate more than $100 million each in annual revenue. And TV stations have become crafty about using weather reports to keep viewers hooked.
A viewer must watch a show for at least five minutes before Nielsen Media Research Inc., the rating service, will count that viewer. So full weather reports tend to air toward the end of local newscasts. WTTG, for example, pushed the nightly weather report on its hourlong "Fox 5 News at Ten" from 10:35 p.m. to 10:47 p.m.
Every newscast airs plenty of teasers before the full-blown forecast. In WTTG's case, chief forecaster Sue Palka usually appears before the first commercial break to urge viewers to stay tuned.
"The weather is designed to get people to tune in. You'll never see a forecast until at least 15 or 16 minutes into a newscast," Mr. Papper says.
The Weather Channel, the cable network that offers round-the-clock local and national forecasts, hurt the ability of broadcast TV stations to hang onto viewers, Mr. Papper says. Still, the affiliates remain viewers' top choice for TV news.
WRC, home of Bob Ryan, the dean of Washington's TV weather forecasters, is the local ratings champ. Its local news shows win most of the key time periods. In February, for example, an average 187,264 homes tuned into WRC's late news, according to Nielsen Media Research.
An average 106,400 homes tuned into WUSA's late news that month, and an average 89,376 homes tuned into WJLA's. WTTG's news, which airs an hour earlier, drew an average 127,680 homes.
"You have four great weatherpeople here, and they all bring viewers to their stations. I'd be hard-pressed to name another [city] that has such a strong weather team," says Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington group that studies local TV newscasts across the United States.
The average salary for weather forecasters is growing, although they make less than news and sports anchors, according to an annual study by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation: It's $110,000 in the 25 largest cities, compared with $173,000 for a news anchor and $128,000 for a sports anchor. From 1995 to 2000, however, the average salary for a weather forecaster jumped 23.6 percent, compared with increases of 10.1 percent for news anchors and 7 percent for sports anchors.
Sixty-eight percent of all TV weather forecasters have "noncompete clauses" in their contracts, the most of any newsroom staffer, the study found. This means that if a forecaster leaves a station, he is not permitted to go to work immediately for a competing station. The clauses resulted from the fact that many viewers choose newscasts based on the personalities of anchors and reporters.

On guard for hype
In the race for ratings, some forecasters say they have to battle their stations' promotions departments, which often want to hype the weather to lure viewers.
Mrs. Palka says WTTG's promotions staff consults her before producing on-air promos for the 10 p.m. newscast.
"They ask, 'What does Sue think?' and that's very good. There have been times that they want to tease that we are going to have snow, and I have to say, 'I'm not putting that in my forecast,'" Mrs. Palka says.
Forecasters often cringe when their stations air "getting-ready-for-snow" reports, even when a major snowfall isn't predicted.
"If we show a reporter standing in front of a salt pile on a night we might get snow, that picture is more powerful than my words," Mrs. Palka says.
Meteorologists often are not part of story-planning meetings in TV newsrooms. Forecasters "can't control what the newsroom does," says Topper Shutt, chief meteorologist for WUSA. "I can't control if they send a reporter out to do a story on snow-shovel sales."
Mr. Hill stresses that forecasters "don't issue weather watches and warnings. Only the National Weather Service can do that. We are obligated to pass the information along, but they don't originate with us."
But the hype no longer is limited to winter. In recent weeks, drought-stricken Washington was treated to a parade of promos whenever rain was predicted. The hoopla leaves some viewers cynical.
"There is so much doom and gloom. They always want you to think it's going to be the worst possible scenario, and it almost always turns out to be nothing," says D.C. resident Kate Caswell, a coordinator for a local political action committee.
Miss Caswell, 25, grew up in Maine but has lived in Washington for seven years.
"Coming from the Northeast, I know 3 inches of snow is not a big deal. Here, it is hyped as the worst possible scenario. The forecasts almost seem designed to send people scrambling to the grocery store," she says.
On Jan. 18, forecasters predicted that as much as half a foot might fall on the area, which never saw the snowfall predicted 12 days earlier.
The message board on WJLA's Web site reflected the skepticism of some viewers:
"How much money are you willing to put on it, Channel 7?" one wrote.
"I'll believe it when I see it," wrote another.
"We normally shovel flurries and dust off big snow predictions," groused another.
As it turned out, 3 to 6 inches of snow fell Jan. 19. This time, the forecasters hit the mark.
"If you legitimately nail a forecast, you deserve to pat yourself on the back. The times you blow it, you have to take the pie in the face," Mr. Hill says.
Forecasters get plenty of feedback. The day after a prediction of snow or ice that doesn't pan out, their voice mail draws angry complaints from snowplow drivers, schoolteachers and commuters.
"We know people make decisions based on what we say. We are as honest and as up front with the viewers as we can be," Mr. Shutt says.

Modeling the weather
Forecasters have individual on-air styles.
Mr. Ryan stresses scientific explanations. Mr. Hill takes a breezier approach, treating the forecast like a conversation with a neighbor.
Mrs. Palka offers a folksy "weather headline" to encapsulate her nightly forecast, while Mr. Shutt deploys his "bread-o-meter" to measure the severity of snowstorms: The more snow predicted, the more bread viewers will need to stockpile.
But behind the scenes, all rely on the same computerized "models" to help make their predictions. Several federal environmental agencies and universities produce models that take into account wind conditions, temperatures and moisture. The forecasters study them extensively.
"If a forecast is a body, the models are the skeleton. The cornerstone of forecasting is the models," Mr. Ryan says.
They also have made a difference. Most forecasters say a five-day forecast today is as accurate as a three-day forecast 20 years ago.
However, the long-range forecasts those that predict weather conditions for the next seven days often are based on guesses. "The further you go out, the less accurate you're probably going to be," one forecaster says.
And the models can miss the mark.
"Sometimes the models spank us because we pay too much attention to them. If one is particularly bad, I have to say to myself, 'I will not take the bait,'" Mrs. Palka says.
Washington's top forecasters say their long experience in the area is an advantage. Mr. Ryan, at 22 years, is the veteran of the bunch. With 14 years under his belt, Mr. Shutt is the newest.
It helps to know Washington's weather quirks, they say. For example, unique breezes originate in the Chesapeake Bay area. And Washington is in the middle of the East Coast, with mountains to the west.
The forecasters concede that the job became more difficult as the area grew. Ten years ago, they concentrated on predicting conditions in the District and its closest suburbs such as Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties.
The population explosion in the outer suburbs, such as Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia and Frederick and Charles counties in Maryland, gave the forecasters a new set of viewers and a much wider playing field.
"The person in Gaithersburg may have different needs than the person in Waldorf. Today, we have to meet all their needs," Mr. Ryan says.

Changing roles
The increased emphasis on weather in local TV news has forced forecasters to become more serious.
Gone are the days of the zany weatherman of the 1960s, who delivered as many punchlines as predictions. Gone, too, are the weather bunnies of the 1970s pretty young women who presented the weather but had no training in meteorology.
Today's forecasters are more serious and often put in some of the longest days in TV newsrooms.
Mr. Shutt, for example, delivers the forecast on WUSA's weekday evening newscasts at 5, 6 and 11 p.m. He arrives at work at around 2 p.m. and leaves after the late news, although his day usually includes a long dinner break.
Mr. Hill also delivers forecasts six times a day on all-news radio station WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM). Three reports air weekday mornings, three in the afternoons. His first report for WTOP airs at 6 a.m., about 6 hours after his last TV forecast on WJLA.
"[The radio work] actually helps me because it puts me in a continuous loop. I'm never not aware of what the weather conditions are," Mr. Hill says.
Forecasters juggle roles in the TV newsroom. In addition to devising predictions and delivering them on air, they create the graphics that appear during their forecasts. Sometimes they are assisted by a producer, an intern or a weekend forecaster, but often they're on their own.
"We're the scientist, we're the graphic artist, we're the broadcaster," Mr. Shutt says.
The forecasters say they always try to figure out new ways to reach viewers with increasingly short attention spans. Mr. Ryan, for example, says he strives to offer a simple forecast that is not bogged down in graphics.
"We can have the most accurate forecast in the world," he explains, "but if the person says, 'Wait a minute. Is it going to be rainy or sunny?' then we haven't done our job."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide