July 24, 2008

Degrees of Change in Weather Coverage

Sweltering heat, hurricanes, arctic cold or something in between. Weather news has always been a popular topic for conversation.

In recent weeks, the Midwest has grappled with massive flooding. The mercury has soared above the 100-degree mark in the West, Southwest and along the East Coast. California, with its record low rainfall, battled drought and raging wildfires. Hurricane Dolly has battered the Texas coast.

Weather has universally commanded front-page headlines — and not just for extreme events such as the earthquake that struck China this year in May, or the cyclone that devastated Burma the same month. Thunderstorms, nor’easters, twisters, hurricanes, lake-effect snow, El Niño and the continual debate over global warming occupy TV newscasts around the globe.

The media’s fascination with weather can be traced back to the dawn of print news. The earliest known American newsbook, published in Mexico City in 1541, reported an earthquake and storm that killed 600 people in Guatemala. Centuries later, as news evolved from newspapers to the Internet, weather coverage also expanded. So did the people and technology devoted to the big business of weather — such as Doppler radar.

During the 1950s, Doppler radar was used primarily for the study of tornadoes. Today, meteorologists use the technology to track and pinpoint the most powerful storms. And with the push of a button, up-to-the-second "mobile weather" forecasts can be delivered to cell phones and PDAs.

Where would weather coverage be without the perennial weatherman or woman? In the 1950s and 1960s, TV weather girls reigned. By the 1970s, the feminist movement helped usher in an industry of serious meteorologists. Today, on-air meteorologists — both men and women — are household names.

The debuts in 1982 of The Weather Channel and USA Today’s weather page gave a boost to weather coverage.

With its rich color and detailed graphics, USA Today’s innovative weather map single-handedly made the national forecast worth reading. The map has been duplicated in various formats in newspapers across the country.

The Weather Channel, which was recently purchased in July by NBC Universal and two partners for approximately $3.5 billion, was initially expected to fail. "An All-Weather Channel?" The New York Times asked in an editorial at the time. The Weather Channel now reaches approximately 96 million U.S. households.

As summer heats up, expect forecasts filled with heat, humidity and coastal storms. But the next sophisticated tool that will be used to add a twist to the coverage is anyone’s guess.

A 1545 Spanish version of the newsbook containing the earliest known published weather news in America can be seen in the News Corporation News History Gallery. The "Be a TV Reporter" experience in the NBC News Interactive Newsroom gives visitors the opportunity to step before a camera and tape their own weather newscasts, complete with a weather map in the background, then download their videos at newseum.org.

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