When It Snows, Weather Teams Shine

Huge storms in Upstate New York and Denver pose major tests
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The 12 feet of snow that shellacked Oswego County, N.Y., this month and the historic blanketing that covered Denver in December were blinding reminders of a snowstorm’s power to shut cities down. Such disasters are the ultimate test for TV meteorologists and a chance for stations to distinguish themselves in the market.

“It’s a challenge. We have to keep [the coverage] clean, sharp and fresh with information, and we have to get it right,” says Nick Carter, who has been a meteorologist with Gannett’s KUSA, Denver’s powerhouse NBC affiliate, for 20 years. “It also helps to have lots of good coffee.”

Carter and company needed the caffeine boost in Denver on Dec. 20, when the biggest blizzard in three years dumped nearly three feet of snow in less than 24 hours on the country’s 18th-largest TV market. Although Denver’s fleet of meteorologists had sounded the alarm days before, the city was unprepared for the onslaught. People were stranded in their cars, highways were shut down, and commuters took refuge in hotels. News directors booked rooms for their staffs and then bedded down at the office.

“The first night, I slept under my desk with a heating pad, using my coat as a blanket,” says KUSA VP/News Director Patti Dennis. “And when the newsroom starting buzzing again at 2:30 a.m., I was up.”

That first snow was only the beginning: Another storm hit a week later and was followed by another the next week, then every weekend for seven in a row.

KUSA greatly ramped up its coverage during the first storm, remaining on the air and preempting network programming for 17 straight hours, a station record. The station also turned to its newly acquired KTVD, a MyNetworkTV affiliate, and added more coverage on its digital channel, which airs NBC’s Weather Plus.

“We have all these multiple distribution points now,” says Dennis. “This was a great opportunity to test how we could use these outlets to communicate the changing dynamic of local news. The viewers responded overwhelmingly.”

Given its multiple outlets, KUSA has five meteorologists on staff, while most other Denver stations average four each. Although KUSA was alone in extending coverage of the first storm for the entire day, other stations expanded their newscasts throughout the week. CBS-owned KCNC, for example, often kept its morning news on the air until 10 a.m., expanded its noon newscast to an hour, preempted the CBS Evening News to stay local and stretched its 10 p.m. news to an hour.

“It started to be that, if we got 6-9 inches of snow, we would add coverage, but now a 6-inch snowstorm suddenly feels routine,” says KCNC News Director Tim Wieland.

A Valuable Port in a Storm

Wieland also acknowledges the advantage of reaching out to viewers through the Web. “During the last few storms, we’ve significantly increased the amount of weather-related content on our site,” he says. “Having that option allows us to provide so much more content than we could ever fit in a newscast.”

“Our Web traffic exploded,” adds KUSA’s Dennis. “We had 30 million page views in December, up from an average of 4 million.”

The Web was a boon as well in Syracuse, N.Y., the country’s No. 79 market, during that area’s recent overwhelming snowstorms. Web traffic rose significantly at the local stations, even though most of the snow hit north of the city, in towns that border Lake Ontario.

Clear Channel’s WSYR Syracuse, an ABC affiliate, has been encouraging viewers to post their snow photos to its Website at 9wsyr.com. “We’ve gotten 50,000 hits a day on this story,” says News Director Jim Tortora. “Because of the magnitude of this storm, there are literally hundreds of photos on there.”

Last week, WSYR preempted ABC’s George Lopez with a half-hour special about the area’s week of wild weather. It has even experimented with a new feature, keeping its meteorologists “hot,” or miked and on-camera and live-streamed to the Web. At the very least, it keeps them smack in the center of the story.

“They love it,” says Tortora of his weather staff. “Our meteorologists are scientists. They’re truly excited about an event like this.”