As Irene Approaches, Weather Channel Braces for Ratings

Storm scare has benefits

In the community of media-world meteorologists, there seem to be two distinct schools of thought on how to report a hurricane.

The Weather Channel sees a massive ratings bump in times of meteorological unrest, and as the East Coast prepares for Irene, the network is taking the 24-hour cable-news approach, combining show business (and anxiety) with its science.

“All you can do right now is hope and get ready!” exclaimed a host on the Weather Channel’s Thursday morning programming, two days before Irene is set to descend on the Northeast. “This is going to be one of the worst situations we’ve seen in a long, long time,” declared another. “There’s almost no getting around it,” said a third. “There’s no way that the Northeast can avoid getting hit by this hurricane. ”

Al Roker, longtime weatherman on NBC's Today Show and regular host on NBCU's The Weather Channel, says that sometimes, the weather merits some intense verbiage. “[Hurricane Irene] is a powerful storm,” said Roker. “It has potential to do a lot of damage and we’re treating it like that. We’d be irresponsible not to . . . If there was a bear outside your door and somebody knew about it and didn’t tell you—[that’s wrong].”

Others in the industry adhere to another, more circumspect method. Jeff Masters is co-founder and director of meteorology at the weather-tracking website Weather Underground. He said that he "assume[s] that everybody who comes to our website goes to the national hurricane advisories and reads what they say there. I try to give our audience information about what the science says.” What does he think about the more dramatic forms of meteorological presentation?

“I guess it’s different strokes for different folks. I think there’s room for a number of approaches, but you might not be getting a true picture of what the real risk is if you’re going to a place that’s constantly dramatizing things,” Masters said.

This storm, however, is a serious one, he adds. “I think this storm merits the maximum amount of attention . . . It’s projected to affect a part of the population that has no hurricane experience,” Masters said.

If past events are any indication, Irene is likely to be a ratings bonanza for The Weather Channel. During the blizzard that pounded the East Coast last January, the network saw a 29 percent increase in average viewers per day, according to Nielsen. The highest-rated show that week, PM Edition Weekend, saw 1.1 million viewers—a 55 percent bump in viewership from to its highest rated show, Wake Up With Al, the week before. Those increases are fleeting, though. The week after the January Nor'easter hit, the network’s ratings dropped back down to near pre-storm levels.

“The intensity of viewership during times like this—and during big snow storms, the Joplin, Missouri misery, the series of tornadoes in Tuscaloosa—people tune in and log on to our properties in numbers that eclipse everybody else in the industry,” said Weather Channel President and CEO Michael J. Kelly.

But Kelly insists that there is no temptation to play up the drama in an effort to boost his viewership. “We don’t need to hype to get the ratings because people naturally come to us,” he said. “Do we have personalities and passionate presenters here? You bet, but if we're calling something a ‘massive hurricane,’ it’s because we want people to pay attention . . . We’re calling it like we see it.”