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Alan Pergament: Local storm coverage is generally good, but occasionally dangerous

WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) meteorologist Kevin O’Neill made me laugh Tuesday night with one tweet that defined local news coverage of severe weather.

“Tomorrow on ‘Daybreak’ I’ll be standing outside telling you how stupid you have to be to go outside,” tweeted O’Neill.

Let me say right at the top, the three local network affiliates did a thorough and accurate job covering the big weather event this week, and they emphasized that Western New Yorkers should value safety above everything else in dealing with a record-setting weather story.

Western New Yorkers no longer have veteran meteorologist Don Paul and weathercaster Kevin O’Connell on television to explain what is going on, but Channel 2’s Maria Genero and Jen Stanonis, Channel 4’s Todd Santos and Channel 7’s Andy Parker all served the region well during their weather filibusters on the early evening newscasts. I mean, weather reports.

They just seemed like filibusters, because at times you thought they would never stop talking about fronts, bands, lake effect and wind chills.

The end of “Jeopardy!” Tuesday night was the final straw for what some viewers thought was coverage overkill. Someone at Channel 4 decided in the final minutes of the popular game show that Western New York needed another weather report.

The cut-in outraged many viewers of what often is the most-watched, entertainment program on any night.

[Complete coverage of the January 2019 blizzard]

Channel 4 General Manager Dominic Mancuso defended the cut-in and said the “Jeopardy!” episode will not be repeated.

“There were extreme whiteout conditions across parts of the market, including some heavily-populated areas,” Mancuso wrote in a text. “We made the decision that life safety was the most important consideration. On a night that the Skyway and other roads were closing due to conditions, we believe most viewers would agree.”

I think most readers would agree that viewers knew that things were dangerous if they watched any of the coverage during the day and didn’t need another reminder when “Final Jeopardy” was about to arrive.

A blizzard warning was posted by the National Weather Service early this afternoon for Erie County. It's expected to run through 1 a.m. Thursday. Metro Buffalo is included under the warning. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

I didn’t get outraged by any of the coverage, but I was concerned about some elements of the reporting on the nasty elements.

I rotated among the three local newscasts at 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday and learned it was snowing, was going to continue to snow and it was going to get so dangerously cold outside that Western New York was practically going to be shut down Wednesday and Thursday.

I also learned I shouldn’t drive, even though the stations showed reporters appearing to be in cars that were driving too fast while showing how dangerous it was outside.

I know that driving in dangerous conditions is a local and national trend in TV news, but that doesn’t make it any smarter. I’m not sure how fast the drivers were going alongside the reporters. They might have been going slower than they appeared to be on television.

But I fear that the exercise will lead to an accident some day. The stations don’t need to be driving to tell us it is dangerous out there, any more than O’Neill needs to be outside on “Daybreak” to tell us you shouldn’t do this at home. The driving adds nothing to our understanding of the weather. In some cases, it even makes it look like it isn’t as dangerous as the weathercasters were saying. At one point, Channel 4 reporter Shannon Smith said as much.

Here are some more observations about the coverage:

• After watching all the early evening weathercasters, I ended up liking Parker’s Channel 7 weather report the best. He is energetic, almost excited to give details, and he does a nice job ad-libbing pertinent details.

• I felt for Channel 4 reporter Al Vaughters, who was out in the cold Tuesday and had to wait while Santos finished what seemed to be his 100th weather report. I wanted it to stop as much as Vaughters probably did. I’m hoping Vaughters was able to hop into a car to stay warm during Santos’ filibuster.

• I also felt for Channel 4 reporter George Richert, who returned to TV after a few years in public relations and had to endure doing a report outside that he had tired of doing when he left television news.

• I know stations now try to get viewers involved, but I found the Tuesday report by Channel 2’s Michael Wooten featuring weather comments on social media from ordinary people ripe for a “Saturday Night Live” parody.

. It wasn't quite as annoying as the weather cut-in on "Jeopardy," but Channel 7 sent out Parker to do a quick weather hit at 9 p.m. Wednesday that made viewers miss the opening scene in the first minute of ABC's popular comedy "Modern Family."

. Ratings Time: Naturally, the storm led to big ratings for the local news stations. Channel 2 and Channel 4 newscasts received double-digit ratings on Tuesday and Wednesday that were higher than almost all prime time entertainment programs. Channel 2 narrowly won the  5 p.m. through 6:30 p.m. news block on both days and was more dominant overall on Wednesday when it also won at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. As usual, Channel 7 was deep in third place.


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