NEW YORK – The correspondent most frequently seen on either ABC, CBS or NBC’s evening newscasts this year doesn’t work out of the White House or some overseas trouble zone. It’s Ginger Zee, ABC’s meteorologist.
Weather is a big element of local news, but a story about the elements once had to be extraordinary to warrant time on a national newscast. Now it’s routine, and not everyone considers that a change for the better.
Over the past five years, the newscasts have essentially doubled the amount of time spent on weather and natural disaster stories. The time has more than quadrupled since the early 1990s, said news consultant Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the content of the broadcasts.
ABC’s “World News Tonight” leads the way, particularly since David Muir took over as anchor in September.
“The weather is part of the national conversation and it is part of the news cycle,” said Almin Karamehmedovic, executive producer of “World News Tonight.” “Increasingly, we see it that way. I’m sure the weather is the same as it was 10 years ago, but we see much more of it.”
ABC led its Wednesday newscast with the storm that lashed the Northeast with rain and snow, and predictions of a big storm out West. NBC’s “Nightly News” led with fallout from the Senate torture report, and the “CBS Evening News” started with poll results on racial attitudes toward law enforcement.
With people following news all day, ABC wants to catch what people are most immediately talking about, Karamehmedovic said. By that point, the torture report had been out more than 24 hours. Muir’s fast-paced broadcast has seen some success, winning the November ratings sweeps among young viewers for the first time in 18 years.
During Muir’s first three months, ABC spent 150 minutes on weather stories, and hired Rob Marciano as a second meteorologist. NBC did 106 minutes and CBS had 69 minutes, Tyndall said.
“If you’re trying to be relevant to a local audience, (weather is) as relevant as it gets,” said Steve Capus, executive producer of the “CBS Evening News.” “But we’re not broadcasting to one part of the country.”
Capus said he’d rather spend time on more substantial, less flashy, stories.
Still, CBS led its Thursday newscast with the West Coast storm, while ABC opened with the CIA’s response to torture allegations.
Smartphones and social media have made video of dramatic weather, crashing waves and whiteouts of snow more readily available than a decade ago. Typhoon Hagupit in the Philippines wasn’t as bad as anticipated and struck far from an American audience last weekend, but ABC and CBS both ran storm video Monday evening. The images were arresting.
The concern is that video makes weather stories catnip to producers, irresistible even with limited news value, said Patrick Burkey, “Nightly News” executive producer.
Others use a more blunt term: weather porn. The extra time spent on these stories can’t be explained by an increased frequency of or interest in bad weather, and they’re rarely used in context of a discussion about climate change, Tyndall said.
“If Ginger Zee reported in the role of climatologist rather than meteorologist, I would praise ABC’s ‘World News Tonight’s' decision as a daring intervention into a crucial national and global debate,” he said. “Instead, she is more like a pornographer.”
Karamehmedovic said ABC’s concern is people, not pictures. The network reports on weather stories with wide impact, he said.
ABC’s second-ranked story Monday was Zee forecasting the East and West Coast storms. Across town, Burkey said the story was debated intensely at NBC’s afternoon news meeting: Should the broadcast spend valuable time on weather that hasn’t happened yet? NBC settled on a short item read by anchor Brian Williams.
“Weather coverage can drive ratings,” Burkey said, but “you have to be careful that you’re not covering weather stories that aren’t real news every night. It’s an easy way to lose the trust of the audience about what is really an important weather story.”