The Weather's Frightful

You can pick lots of adjectives for winter in Chicago, but one that would be universally agreed upon (and one we can print without offending anyone) is "snowy." Actually, I don't think it's as snowy as it is just damn cold, and I don't think it gets really cold until February, but I've been told I'm wrong about this so often that I've quit arguing the point. Chicago gets snow, and it's not very newsworthy. Unless you're in the business of reporting the news.

When I worked for the Sun-Times in Chicago, the new managing editor —herself a Midwesterner—had an unending fascination with snow. Whenever it snowed or whenever the little meteorologists club decided it looked like it was going to snow, she would eat up pages of newsprint telling Chicago about it. "But, Julia, it's Chicago" the city editor would whine at planning meetings. "Everybody knows it snows here." Talk about cold fronts: She gave him an icy stare, and readers got their snow reportage.

I can only imagine the scene at television stations. It's snowing now in New York City, and this big city is in panic. But it could be Des Moines, and the excitement level would be just about the same.

You can't realize how important weather forecasting is to stations until you've been to a Radio-Television News Directors Association or National Association of Broadcasters convention and seen the cutthroat competition among weather-equipment vendors. Spending money on weather gizmology is money well spent. It's probably truer than anybody wants to admit, but a reliable (and affable, always affable) weather forecaster is often more crucial to the success of a news operation than the reliable (and equally affable) news anchors.

With station groups planning ways to use their digital spectrum, nearly everybody supposes at least one of those multicast channels will devote all its time to local weather. That is probably bad news for The Weather Channel, which, as a national service, is sometimes telling us about Idaho when we're inundated in Indianapolis. A local weather channel, no doubt, will be just as uninteresting as the weather is most of the time, but it's the kind of easy-to-provide service that is also easy to pay for and doesn't need a staff of 200.

But I'd suppose those coming local weather channels might not be very good news for the local newsgatherers either. Because it's not the day's mayhem that is dragging eyeballs to the 11:00 news. It is the weather. And if it's not snow, it's heat in Phoenix or hurricane-related bad weather in New Orleans. There, in The Big Easy, when you give a call to WVUE(TV), the receptionist answers, "Good afternoon! Fox 8, your weather authority." And, in almost every market, including New York, the weather segment on the local news has pushed sports so far back into the newscast that the sports anchor, with only about two minutes to do his business, talks as though a gun were pointed at his head.

I think there's kind of a subculture of weather fans. I don't understand highs or lows, and I don't care. But Tom Skilling, an institution at WGN-TV Chicago and maybe the best television meteorologist in the nation, also does a question-and-answer weather column for the Chicago Tribune.
He gets more than 10,000 questions a year, and talking to Skilling convinces you that he is fascinated by each and every one. It's the sheer volume that fascinates me.

He has been around long enough to see weather go from a relatively unsophisticated science to quite an industry. The University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he went to school, is a leader in weather science and was one of the first to begin working with satellite weather imaging. "My God, to see a squall line blow up in a short matter of time, right before your eyes, within minutes, that was really something," he recalled. Back then, he thought, "If there was only a way to bring images like that to television ..."

Now there is, in spades, and weather, it's fair to say, has changed television news and given us Stormwatch teams from coast to coast.

By the way, Skilling predicts that, in the Midwest and Northeast, this winter will start warmer and get colder than recent winters, and with more snow. I told him I hope he's wrong. He said, affably, "And we may be."

Bednarski may be reached at