The yearly ritual of the whiny television viewer is in full swing as severe weather season roars with a vengeance. When tornadoes touch down, local news stations have to preempt programming to warn people so they don’t die, but that interferes with Very Important Programs like Days or football. Many viewers argue that their neighbors have no right to receive warnings if it means cutting-in during a crucial episode of The Big Bang Theory. They are wrong.
There are hundreds of local network affiliates across the country, and each are bound to an area of coverage that roughly corresponds to a certain number of counties. Some affiliates could only cover five or six counties, while others are responsible for providing news and programming to entire states. Most—if not all—of these local news stations have policies in place that require their broadcast meteorologists to cut into programming if a tornado warning is issued in any of the counties they cover.
Now, these interruptions usually come at inopportune times for the avid television viewer. I mean, go figure that a tornado has to wipe out a town of 10,000 just as Sheldor is about to zing his fellow braniacs with a well-placed “bazopple!!!” They have to show us the end of the show! That’s their job! ...right?
Well, it’s not. If a television station skips covering a potentially deadly tornado in favor of showing programming instead, among the many consequences they could suffer is running the risk of losing their license with the FCC. The federal agency has pretty clear guidelines that networks are granted permission to use the public airwaves with the understanding that they’re operating in the public interest.
In exchange for obtaining a valuable license to operate a broadcast station using the public airwaves, each radio and television licensee is required by law to operate its station in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” This means that it must air programming that is responsive to the needs and problems of its local community of license.
It’s an easy thing to forget since so many of us pay through the nose for overpriced cable and satellite packages, but these networks began as and continue to be over-the-air networks. In other words, you can hike up an antenna and watch them for free anywhere in their area of coverage. Unlike Comedy Central or TV Land, you don’t have to have a subscription television service to watch their programming.
Warning the public about the imminent threat of tornadoes is very much in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Of the many things a news organization could do to fulfill that FCC requirement, warning them about impending sky doom is pretty high on the list.
The “simple solution” batted around every time this issue comes up is that networks should simply target their coverage to those who need it, leaving everyone else in blissful ignorance. It doesn’t work like that. The same ABC 7 Local Always on Your Side Super Doppler VIPR 2000 broadcast you watch on cable is the same that other people see via satellite or a $20 antenna they bought at Walmart. Aside from that, warning some but not others of deadly tornadoes could put people at risk if they plan to travel, have family and friends in the affected areas, or if the hazardous weather quickly spreads to other areas.
The phenomenon of angry viewers calling, emailing, and tweeting expletive-laden rants and even death threats is a perfect example of the “if it’s not happening to me, I don’t care” mentality. People two towns over receiving expert analysis and real-time, street-level radar imagery of a potentially deadly tornado is so much more important than catching important plot points.
If anyone is really that upset over missing their favorite television program, they can wait a couple of days and watch it on the network’s website. Let’s be real—you’re probably going to watch this season 17 times when it comes out on Netflix or Hulu in a few months, anyway. If someone is upset that they’re paying for something that they don’t get to watch because those evil meteorologists have the nerve to tell people where a tornado is, remember that this programming is completely free with the purchase of a good antenna. No one is stopping you from cancelling your cable subscription and slapping a pair of rabbit ears on the table next to your television.
It’s frustrating to miss your favorite show because of the weather, just like it’s frustrating when dangerous weather cancels your flight or keeps your kids home from school. Treat preempted television programming along the same lines as a cancelled flight or closed school—annoying but usually necessary, and a matter of life or death for someone in the path of destructive thunderstorms.
[Image: Artist’s depiction of people who threaten meteorologists for trying to save them, as depicted by MGM’s Wizard of Oz]