Disaster warning for some, entertainment for others

Written by New York Times | Nags Head | Updated: Aug 30 2011, 07:32am hrs
Standing where he warned others not to tread, the beach on the Outer Banks during Hurricane Irenes landfall, Mike Seidel had sand in his teeth, his pockets and his ears. He was soaking wet, barely able to hear and he was beaming.

We havent missed a live shot in three hours! he exclaimed while trying to stand up on the battered beach here in his seventh hour of live television reporting. A minute later, he was back on the Weather Channel, where he would stay for a total of 15 hours on Saturday, seeing, feeling and tasting the storm several times each hour as a surrogate for viewers and a guide for evacuees.

Yes, what Seidel does may seem crazy at times, but most important for him and for his bosses, it is compelling TV the Weather Channels ratings are never higher than when a hurricane is making landfall. Like Home Depot selling plywood for windows or Wal-Mart selling jugs of water, the Weather Channel sells coverage of weather-related disasters. Delivering on its promise to take people into the path of mother nature is what makes the channel a must-carry for cable systems across the US, and what allows it to sell so many storm-related ads to insurance companies and home improvement stores before, during and after storms.

Commercials over the weekend urged viewers to come back after the storm coverage.

It is harder than it looks, staying on live television during a hurricane. But Seidel, a meteorologist by training, lives for it. After 10 hours on the air, when Eileen Winslow, a senior assignment editor, called to ask whether he wanted a break, he said firmly, I dont want any down time. Not till it ends.

There are ways to show hurricane conditions safely, he says by not going too far into the water, for instance, like some local television reporters did on Saturday, increasing their chances of being tugged out to sea by the current. Still, it briefly became dangerous for Seidels camera crew here at mid-afternoon on Saturday, as the core of the storm punched through the nearby Albemarle Sound.

It took three men to hold down the camera, which was perched on a slippery second-floor deck, peering down at Seidel on the wet beach. The crew feared the deck railing might fly away, so they moved to a safer third-floor balcony, eating up 45 minutes of broadcasting time. A different section of the deck railing did, indeed, collapse an hour later.

Hurricane Irene was an especially wide storm system, affecting an exceptionally high number of people on the East Coast, so television images served as a warning to people in harms way, and entertainment for those who were not.

All of the major television networks extended hours of news programming over the weekend; they knew that although some viewers laughed at images of reporters being blown over by winds, they were definitely watching. They were accused by many of overhyping the storm, but as the longtime anchor for NBCs New York station, Chuck Scarborough, said on air on Sunday, Were in the news business. We deal in doom.