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Ch. 2's extended tornado warning coverage leads to question about FCC rules

Inquiring minds want to know: Is there a Federal Communications Commission rule about how local TV stations must handle tornado warnings?

The answer to that question was hazy Wednesday night after WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) broke into “The NBC Nightly News” to report that there was a tornado warning in the Southern Tier and McKean county in Pennsylvania.

I'll try to clear it up.

First, the facts of how the three local news stations handled the situation.

As NBC was reporting on the first of five days of memorials for the late Sen. John McCain, Channel 2 weathercaster Maria Genero broke into the national newscast at 6:40 p.m. and stayed on the air until she said the tornado warning was over at 7 p.m.

Many “Nightly News” viewers weren’t happy, which led Genero to explain why she was staying on so long.

“By FCC rule, you have to stay on when there is a tornado warning all the way until it expires,” said Genero.

Channel 2 clearly was operating under the theory "better safe than sorry."

WIVB-TV (Channel 4) and WKBW-TV (Channel 7) stayed with their networks' nightly newscasts, making the situation really confusing.

I couldn't find any rule on the FCC website confirming what Genero said. I also have a call into the FCC to find out if such a rule exists or if it is an informal policy and not a requirement.

Michael Nurse, the general manager of Channel 7, votes for the latter. He said participation in the emergency alert system is “technically voluntary.”

“However, nearly all stations participate in NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric) weather alerts,” he added. “The legal obligation is to assure that the alert also reaches those who may be deaf or blind. It is an editorial decision that each station much make individually when and how long to stay in coverage. Most err on the side of caution. Our weather staff judged the risk and made a judgment call based on their read of weather conditions.”

WKBW’s judgment was to run a crawl, go live on Facebook and have live coverage on Channel 7 at 7 p.m. in “The Now.” That was when Genero said the tornado warning was over.

Viewers voted on Channel 2’s extensive coverage with their clickers. Its extended tornado warning coverage led viewers to “The CBS Evening News” on Channel 4 and ABC’s “World News Tonight“ on Channel 7.

“The “NBC Nightly News” was No. 1 from 6:30 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. with a 7.8 rating to a 7.4 for ABC’s “World News Tonight” and a 7.3 for “The CBS Evening News.”

From 6:4 p.m. to 7 p.m., CBS gained 2.2 rating points on Channel 4 to a 9.5 for first place, with ABC second on Channel 7 with a gain of 0.7 for an 8.1 rating.

And Channel 2?

It dropped 1.8 points to a third-place 6.0.

More Rating News: The fiery debate between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and activist and actress Cynthia Nixon carried by Channel 4 at 7 p.m. via WCBS in New York led many WNYers to find Channel 4’s sister station WNLO (CW23).

The debate averaged a 4.5 rating for the hour on Channel 4, losing viewers every 15 minutes. It started with a 5.4 rating and ended with a 3.2 rating.

Still, those are decent numbers for a debate.

But they couldn’t beat the popular syndicated programs “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” which were moved from Channel 4 to CW 23.

“Wheel” lost the first half hour to the debate with a 4.3 rating. But “Jeopardy” more than made up for the difference with a 5.1 rating for the second half hour. The combined rating was 4.7, 0.2 points ahead of the debate.

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