June 21, 2000

It was a different time, and a different place, but I bet that someone out there remembers "Uncle Weatherbee", a TV weatherman otherwise named Tex Antoine. His nightly weather report was a wonderful mix of weather, cartoon art, and storytelling. I've never heard of anyone else doing weather like he did, either before or since.

He would start his weather segment standing next to an easel covered by blank papers, and he would proceed to draw the weather systems that were pertinent to the nation and the area. As his hands drew in the lows, highs, and fronts, his voice would narrate their past and expected movements, and what their effects would be. As he filled page after page of the easel, building the map as he described each feature, he engaged his audience. He instructed the viewers about their weather, rather than just informing them of a forecast.

This was one of the bright spots in television's adolescence, and like the others, it too blinked out. Uncle Weatherbee was replaced by the standard weather format where the "weather man" would stand beside a preassembled weather map and point out the features. Little changed for almost three decades, and gathering preflight weather data remained a tedious and imprecise process, even for those people with a feel for meteorology.

The powerful graphics abilities of computers changed all that during the 1990s. Today, anyone with a computer can access all of the data that is available to the FAA weather briefer or the local TV weather man. Each night before I leave for work, I print out the current weather and 3 types of forecasts for my flight route and put it into my shirt pocket. I don't care to depart into weather unless I have had a recent look at the radar picture. Even ten years ago these things that seem so routine were almost like science fiction.

Television stations, from the big city network anchors to the small town studios, are all able to produce stunning pictures and animations which show all the details of weather in motion. Long gone are the days of the weather man pointing out the features on the weather map with a wooden stick. Long gone too, are the people like Tex Antoine who actually taught the weather.

Just as our weathermen were handed this array of graphic tools which could help people understand their weather, TV was descending deeper into its self imposed abyss, pandering to the emotions of the lowest common denominator. Some weathermen seem to want to tell more, but seem to be restrained. Lots of viewers probably want to hear some combination of the words "hot/warm/cool/cold/sunny/cloudy/rainy/snowy" and get on to the sports scores. My personal belief is that weather knowledge is too close to life's core to treat lightly.

It must be terribly frustrating for a properly trained meteorologist to stand before the Weather Channel camera and speak so many words that have so little significance, much like throwing rice cakes to the starving masses. Their network seems to thrive on bad weather, giving profuse warnings without tempering them with knowledge or common sense, working to create a feeling of peril among the viewers. "...All you folks here on I-95... especially those of you in high profile vehicles and SUVs,... watch out for severe thunderstorms which may contain high winds, dangerous lightning, torrential downpours, hail, and create flash flooding..." "...We'll be watching this severe weather scenario for you, and we will keep you updated, so stay tuned..."

It's a catchy strategy, even though few people who are driving on I-95 are actually watching their show. Anyone within 50 miles of I-95 though, has their attention piqued, and must first realize that it is only the part of I-95 in North Carolina which will be crossed by a line of thunderstorms. Moreover, the storms will come and then quickly move on, with no more storms to follow. Any thunderstorm worth its mettle can produce the violent weather that they took such pains to state. What they failed to state was that these conditions if they occur, will be both localized and short- lived.

It is the information age, but so much of this opportunity is squandered. Information gathering has become an accepted excuse for decision avoidance, and so much of our information is loaded with cautionary chaff that it is hard to digest. Television has the power to guide and to educate, but it has chosen to follow rather than to lead. The true value of today's electronics technology can be assessed every afternoon; How many people are watching science or history, and how many are watching Jerry Springer?

As a post script, my favorite commercial weather site is, $6 per month.

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