Made-for-TV Disasters

Hurricane season as media theater


Pableaux Johnson
September 10, 1996 12:03PM (UTC)

Last week, Hurricane Fran ravaged the coastal Carolinas while her pals Gustav and Hortense milled around the Caribbean, politely waiting their turn to attack. Businesses closed, tourists fled, and news directors rejoiced.
For televised news media, what could be better than hurricane season? Neatly wedged between Hollywood's summer blockbusters and the new fall television season, hurricanes provide an ideal diversion during the slow news period that traditionally follows Labor Day. The storms, given increasingly unthreatening names yet still qualifying as presenting "imminent danger," give television news a seasonal string of perfectly formatted news events.
As the strongest oceanic storm systems, hurricanes occupy the top of the meteorological food chain and invoke imagery of focused elemental fury. From humble beginnings in tropical seas, these storms often take weeks to graduate from depression to tropical storm to hurricane, at which point they either dissipate, decimate Caribbean island chains, or attack the United States. From the perspective of a news organization, that means plenty of time to build drama, fill slow news days, and -- if ratings warrant -- send an entry-level weather reader directly into the storm's path.
TV hurricane coverage is a quasi-morality play -- a four-act love child of Greek tragedy and '50s alien-invasion movies. The play runs on the same dynamics that fueled the popularity of this summer's zillion-dollar "Independence Day" and last summer's zillion-dollar OJ Trial -- clearly defined characters and a predictable plot line. The only thing missing is the overacting.
The first act, "Rites of Passage," calmly traces a storm's incremental movements from depression to tropical storm to full hurricane status. Our antagonist gathers force, and the meticulous experts on the Weather Channel's Weather Scope bring you a technical play-by-play expressed in precise barometric readings, detailed navigational coordinates and ominous phrases like "strike probability." The stars of this act are career meteorologists rather than well-coifed weather mannequins, and Act I's warroom atmosphere feels like a small-town theater production of "Dr. Strangelove" -- only with better equipment.
Act II, "Put Up or Shut Up," brings the storm to secondary headline status as the new hurricane ravages perennially-endangered former Dutch, Danish and French island colonies. By this time, we're actually "tracking" the storm to determine if it's to be a killer or a washout. The story breaks to national news stations for a short cameo following the mid-point commercial break. Violently suggestive teasers build suspense and encourage viewer retention ("After the break, Isidore pounds Puerto Plata..."). Local and network anchors practice stern expressions while using universally forceful verbs ("threaten," "slam," and "dump") to describe the impending coastal invasion. In small markets across the nation, stately anchors and balding weathermen exchange earnest banter about the storm's progress before wondering how this will affect the Dolphins game. They'll have the latest on the storm's progress at 10.
Sometime during Act II, the viewing public gets its first view of the hurricane's new logo -- the art department's best attempt at making the storm's moniker appear threatening, even if it's being called "Hortense." The graphic usually employs bold type set against traditional "high wind" symbolism (fluttering distress flags and straining palm trees) or, in the case of the Weather Channel, blood-red animated satellite shots of a aggressive hurricane in motion. This year's names present a particular challenge to those artists, since names like Fran, Paloma and Vicky sound less like ruthless killers than members of a nursing home canasta league.
"Thar She Blows!" (Act III) brings live reports from the storm front mere hours before the hurricane's destructive landfall. Legions of EyeWitness News correspondents clamor to interview retreating locals in between wind-swept descriptions of atmospheric mayhem. During Hurricane Fran, the CBS primetime news magazine "48 Hours" featured split-screen reports from three different crews on the coast -- one on the leading edge, one in the eye, and a third in Fran's wake. Having built his career developing "in the eye" journalism, elder statesman and host Dan Rather quizzed the gale-battered young reporters about relative wind speeds and amounts of flying debris. "That's all from the strike zone of Killer Hurricane Fran. Back to you in the warm, dry studio, Dan."
After the storm hits land and dissipates into a series of weakening squall lines, Act IV -- "Aftermath" -- takes to the air. Strong lead stories gradually break into a flurry of generic survivor's tales, human interest stories, and multi-level "disaster area" declarations. Fran, the worst storm to hit the Carolinas since 1989's Hugo, quickly lost her competitive advantage and dropped from the CNN's lead story by Monday morning, relegated instead to brief guest appearances on Headline News' sports sections (games canceled due to rain), economic news (possible effects on Southern crop futures) and human interest segments (the courageous schoolgirl who swam a raging flood to rescue a stranded possum family).
And as President Clinton flies over to survey the damage, the final act closes with insurance representatives singing a spirited rendition of their theme song -- "What? (You Think We're Made O' Money?)"
The audience applauds as it revels in the lessons of blockbuster hurricane coverage: All's well that ends well, It could have been worse, and natural disasters make great ratings. The curtain falls, credits roll and cleanup crews emerge to assess the damage.
But what do we do for an encore? There's a sequel forming in the basin and we'll have the latest satellite pictures at 10...


Pableaux Johnson

Pableaux Johnson is a food and travel writer (still) based in New Orleans. His most recent book is "Eating New Orleans: From French Quarter Creole Dining to the Perfect Poboy" (Countryman Press, 2005).

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