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Mon August 29, 2011
Why Did I Watch Fourteen Hours Of The Weather Channel? I'm Not Sure.
If you follow me on Twitter, you already know that I spent all day Saturday watching The Weather Channel. It started very early in the morning when I woke up nervous and headed out to the living room. The hurricane hadn't even made landfall yet, but they already had a guy on the beach who had been assigned to watch over a wooden pier to see if it would collapse. "I appreciate The Weather Channel's nonstop coverage of America's Pier," I said to practically nobody, since practically nobody was awake.
Many, many hours later — fourteen or so, I gave up: "Bored with storm. Taking break from storm." I went to sleep with the power on. I would wake up with the power off, but blessedly with no water in my apartment.
What on earth happened in between? How did the entire day float by and I watched The Weather Channel? I told a friend Sunday night that I had done this, and the answer I got was the obvious one. It's the question you're asking, it's the question I'm asking, it's the question anyone would ask. "Why would you do that?"
Anxiety. I'm convinced that wall-to-wall weather coverage soothes anxiety by making you feel (quite incorrectly) like you now have an encyclopedic knowledge of how, exactly, you might wind up with a basement full of raw sewage. TWC (I call it TWC, because we're now so close) is always careful to address its hurricane expert as "Dr. Knabb." Mike is Mike, Jeff is Jeff, but Dr. Knabb is always Dr. Knabb. Mike can be on the beach, having his outer layers of skin sanded off by grit that is pelting him at 75 miles an hour, and he will still address the bespectacled dude back in the studio whose biggest issue is keeping his Starbucks warm as "Dr. Knabb."
This kind of authority allows Dr. Knabb to explain storm surges, rain bands, and exactly how wind might — according to his explanation — essentially try to push the entire Atlantic Ocean into the Chesapeake Bay. Dr. Knabb is a tangle of facts, which he repeats over and over in case you just got there — which you probably did, because why would you be watching him give these explanation for FOURTEEN HOURS?
The element of surprise. One thing that became clear to me was that you watch a weather reporter out on the beach walking against gusts of wind for one of the same reasons you watch figure skating: the darkest and guiltiest part of your soul is waiting to see a wipeout. Not a dangerous wipeout; you don't want the weather guy to get hurt. But blown over harmlessly so that his windbreaker comes partially unsnapped? Well, yes.
But there's more to the surprise than that. These weather guys report live from wherever they think they can get a good shot, so there are always various odd things going on in the background. People walk by, cars drive by, and it all happens while the reporters are stressing that people absolutely should not be outside. It's basically like watching a wildlife expert talk about how you should never taunt an angry bear while somebody in the background runs across the screen being chased by a grizzly and yelling, "You want the sandwich? You want the sandwich? Come and get it, ha ha ha!"
This background action took a particularly unexpected turn midday Saturday when poor Eric Fisher, reporting from Virginia Beach, was right in the middle of a report when a guy ran across the shot behind him through the driving rain, pulled down his shorts (the guy's shorts, not Eric's), and then turned around to full-frontally flash the national audience. You can see a censored still, or watch the uncensored video if you choose, here. "To be honest, I'm pretty much speechless," said Eric, who then apologized in a general way for what the audience had just witnessed.
So little on television is actually surprising that the possibility of unexpected merriment going on at any moment is a little bit tantalizing.
Sympathy. It wasn't just Eric and his streaker who ran into difficulties. Whenever a reporter is asked to do live television under the conditions these people deal with, there are likely to be moments when things don't go precisely as one might wish. Among other things, they're asked at times to vamp quite a bit, filling time because there's not actually a lot of new information to report.
At one point, the Wooden Pier Watch noted that about 30 yards of the pier had vanished in the surf and wind. The reporter said something along the lines of, "The end of the pier blew off, so they'll either have to rebuild it or, uh, make it a little bit shorter." That they will, fella. That they will.
You can't help rooting for poor Mike Seidel, who was standing on the beach in Nags Head, N.C., for hours and hours, looking at times like he was doing a mime routine called "Walking Against The Wind." Only it wasn't mime. I believe it was Mike who experienced a large wave that inspired the anchor back in the studio to say, "Get out of there, dude." Any time an anchor warns a reporter to retreat and calls him "dude," that's good TV.
Nerds. Finally, nothing makes a broadcast quite like a giant nerd. It takes a while watching TWC before you realize that they are such weather nerds that they sometimes tend to see things from the storm's point of view. They talk about the shape of the storm as beautiful, or "great," or "improving," and what they mean is that the storm is thriving. It's along the lines of, "This storm is looking great. Your lawn furniture? Not so much." At first, when they say the storm is getting better, you the viewer assume it means "less fierce." But they actually mean "more efficient, in terms of destruction." This is how you know that they are true nerds, and not just poseurs. CNN anchors would never accidentally say a storm is great because it's so beautifully shaped that it will look great on the radar as it tears a few shingles off the Hot Dog Hut in Atlantic City.