May 25th, 2011
I was stunned – as were a number of other people I spoke with in Dallas – to see WFAA running the finale of “Dancing With The Stars” while tornado warnings were coming fast and furious across the Metroplex, softball-sized hail was ripping up roofs and smashing car and house windows, and 30,000 people were being evacuated from the stadium at the Texas Rangers game as a storm bore down on them. The competition was providing wall-to-wall coverage for most of the night – telling people in various parts of the sprawling DFW market to “go to your safe place right now” – as tornado warnings keep occuring up – and on Channel 8 the stars danced on.
Now, WFAA meteorologist Pete Delkus popped up during most of the commercial breaks as the mayhem swirled around the Metroplex – but was that enough? Was that enough from WFAA’s main weathercaster – who has been on the air for every storm – wall-to-wall – non-stop for hours – since he came on the scene 5 years ago? Was that enough for the legion of WFAA fans who have come to rely on Delkus to keep them safe during storms – by always being on the air – day or night – 7 days a week – when storms have threatened?
It was a muggy August night in 1985 that WFAA forged the reputation of being THE breaking news station in the DFW market. It was a Friday night – Delta flight 191 clipped a storage tank during a deadly microburst while trying to land in a nasty thunderstorm at DFW airport. WFAA was first on the air with word of the tragedy – and the only local station to stay on the air non-stop covering the breaking news story. That night – WFAA became the “go to” station for DFW TV viewers. They have worked hard for the last 26 years to keep that all-important title. The question is – did they give up a piece of their legacy by running the DWTS finale during a wild weather night in Dallas-Ft. Worth?
I say yes they did. Think about it. Fans of Pete Delkus – who have all become accustomed to seeing him live on the air from the beginning of dangerous storms – until the danger has passed – were forced to go to some other meteorologist during the DWTS finale. For many – they most likely sampled the competition for the first time. They needed – and wanted – the information right now – not just during a break in the DWTS program. WFAA left those people hanging for many minutes at a time – minutes that many viewers felt they did not have to waste – as deadly storms broke out seemingly everywhere in the Metroplex. WFAA forced their loyal fans who wanted continuous weather updates to go somewhere else. How much did that diminish all those hours – and all those storms – that Delkus diligently covered as he built their trust in him? WFAA did win the ratings last night – and the DWTS lead-in gave them their highest 10 p.m. news audience in months. But at what long term cost did they get a one night pop?
Troy Dungan was the dean of DFW weathercasters during three decades at WFAA until he retired in 2006 – replaced by Delkus. It was always very reassuring to me as a viewer when storms were nearby or possible – that at the end of the 10 p.m. newscast Troy would say – “Now I’ll be here all night, and if I need to come back on to let you know about dangerous weather, I’ll be back.” I spoke with Troy about the importance of being on the air continuously during tornado warnings. By the way, Troy made it very clear in our conversation that he would not have any comment directly about WFAA’s decision on the storm coverage.
Troy told me that he believes things have changed a bit at DFW TV stations since he was the lead weathercaster. He says that it was strictly his decision back in the day when to go on the air with severe weather coverage – and when to go off. Dungan says today he thinks TV station managers get more involved in making that call. He says “weather people are not the final authority anymore.”
Troy also said he thinks that sometimes the weathercasters go on for too long when there are only thunderstorms threatening. But, Dungan says, “you must be on the air continuously during tornado warnings.” And that is my beef with Troy’s former station – there were a number of tornado warnings issued while WFAA was showing uninterrupted segments of DWTS. Seeing Delkus during an ABC-dictated commercial break may have put some viewers in harms way.
When it comes to severe weather coverage – it is all about experience and trust. Troy Dungan said it best, “Marty Haag (the late, legendary news director at WFAA) always told me, “When you say I’m going to bed, that’s when I would go to bed – not before.”
During the “Dancing With The Stars” finale – WFAA forced viewers to get those reassuring words from a meteorologist that may not even have sampled before. I believe – forcing that viewing of the competition – puts a chink in your loyalty armor. How big a chink remains to be seen.
May 2nd, 2011
I was first alerted to an “important” President Obama speech through a text message on my Android X from CNN. I checked in with MSNBC.com and found out the speech was happening at 9:30 p.m. Central. Several minutes later a crawl on NBC TV gave me similar information. That was the extent of the info.
I jumped on Facebook and Twitter – and quickly was able to find out what really was going on – Osama Bin Laden was dead! Killed by a U.S. special ops team! The information was now pouring in on social media. Bin Laden had been shot in the head. The U.S. did DNA testing on his body to assure it was the bastard. He’d been killed in a mansion in Pakistan.
Meanwhile the TV networks were treading water – blah-blah-blah – as they waited for President Obama to come out for the speech. The minutes droned by. It was obvious the networks knew what the speech was about – but apparently bound by some kind of an embargo from their sources – were tight-lipped about what the speech was about.
Meanwhile on social media I was interacting with people from across the country – ecstatic that the 9-11 terrorist leader was finally dead. I was sharing our relief and sense of pride that Americans had killed Bin Laden. I was reading heartfelt comments from people who had lost friends and relatives in the Twin Trade Towers collapse. And, of course, there was also erroneous information on the streaming social media “news reports.” One post said that six Americans had been killed in the raid. That turned out to be untrue. But even that “mistake” was corrected within minutes by other posts.
Finally, the traditional TV networks, growing weary of President Obama’s continuing delay of his speech, confirmed that Bin Laden had been killed. I believe CNN led the way in breaking the self-imposed embargo. But that was the extent of their information. They returned to their blah-blah-blah – this time with so-called expert opinions.
At the same time, I was growing frustrated at the traditional media’s talking heads because I knew – thanks to social media – that Americans were responding to the news even before Obama made it official. Twitter feeds told me that fans at a Philadelphia Phillies game had broken out in chants of “USA, USA.” I learned from Twitter that hundreds of people were gathering outside the White House singing the national anthem and chanting “USA.” The traditional media had a live shot of the White House from a distance – but apparently no one thought (even though they had reporters on the White House grounds) to show viewers some live video of the gathering celebration.
The Twitter Universe told me other fascinating information. The widow of a man killed on 9-11 was on an airplane when she learned the news – broke out in tears – and the entire cabin was comforting her. Many were now gathering at Ground Zero to share this historic moment. A Facebook page had been created dedicated to Bin Laden’s death and there were already over 120,000 people on it. There was a $25 million bounty on Bin Laden – would the Navy Seal who pulled the trigger get that money?
Finally, CNN showed live video of the now thousands of people outside the White House – cheering and waving American flags. That was about 30 minutes after I learned about this impromptu celebration from social media. It was nice to finally see those happy people – but I only gave it a glance. I was too busy learning more information – and the American perspective of this historic event – from social media.
Social Media even beat the traditional media on when President Obama was finally going to make his appearance. While the network talking heads chatted away with no word of when he might show up, I learned from Twitter that the speech was going to be in two minutes. Sure enough, a couple minutes later CNN showed President Obama strolling toward the microphone.
For a guy who has been involved in the traditional news business for over 40 years – this was a real lesson learned. If the traditional networks lost a guy like me to social media on one of the most historic nights in American history – what chance do they have to capture the hearts and minds of the younger, highly connected generation. Many make the mistake of thinking these younger folks in their 20′s and 30′s have no interest in keeping up with the news. That is a very wrong – and potentially deadly view for traditional media to take. Did you see who the majority of those excited people were outside the White House – it was those 20 and 30 year-olds. They care about news – but as traditional media plods along – stuck in its old ways – these youger folks – and even some aging Baby Boomers like me – turn to the lightning fast, more interesting, more connected social media universe instead.
I learned one other important lesson about social media during the Bin Laden event – it is a a helluva lot more satisfying to engage in the two-way sharing of this historic moment with “real people” whose lives were changed forever by 9-11 – than sitting passively watching anchors and experts give their one-way opinion.