After football, weather coverage dominates local TV

The weekend’s snow storm and cold blast saturated local media coverage, but it was the National Football League playoffs that dominated local television ratings.

Snowflakes practically the size of Volkswagens on Sunday were nothing compared with the roughly 1-in-3 households with televisions that were tuned to WISH-TV Channel 8 for the San Diego Chargers-Cincinnati Bengals game. Meantime, the city’s other TV stations recorded single-digit ratings.

The day before the storm, on Saturday, roughly half of local TV households were watching the Indianapolis Colts-Kansas City Chiefs game on WTHR-TV Channel 13.

Winter storms are different than tornados and severe thunderstorms that can wreak havoc in minutes or a few hours. Such events create short-term viewing spikes, but the latest blizzard and its impact have lasted days, noted WISH’s general manager, Jeff White.

“This is something we saw coming. We forecast it” days earlier, White said.

Still, such weather still draws eyeballs to local newscasts, and some stations were rewarded for sticking with the storm.

WRTV Channel 6, which usually trails in newscast ratings, stayed with storm coverage pretty much from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.  At 5 p.m., WRTV had a rating of 9.2 versus 3.9 for WTHR and 3.0 for WISH.

Once WISH finished with football about 4:30 p.m., “then everybody started sampling (the stations). We were the big beneficiary," said Paul Montgomery, director of audience development at WRTV.

Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., WXIN-TV Fox 59 had the attention of nearly 1-in-3 local TV households, as it broadcast the Green Bay-San Francisco game.

Of course, when news ratings leader WTHR began its 6 p.m. newscast, it took the lead among stations airing news, with a 13-percent rating. Still, WRTV was a close second, at an 11-percent rating.

As far as forecast accuracy, all the local stations played it smart by offering a range of snowfall predictions—generally between 8 inches and 11 inches, Montgomery noted.

And when less snow fell south of Indianapolis than predicted, some stations altered their coverage plans. WRTV, for example, had planned to send crews to the Edinburg area. Instead it sent reporter Rafael Sanchez to Anderson, which was among the worst hit.

WTHR used its considerable resources practically everywhere, from neighborhoods where Indianapolis Power & Light was trying to restore electricity to the top floor of the City-County Building, where city staff took calls from residents who needed help. It also found a dog shelter that had lost heat.

Practically all the stations showed up at warming shelters, where TV crews at times seemed to outnumber residents seeking refuge.

Also common among stations were live video feeds from inside TV vehicles as they slogged through snowy streets and interstates. The feeds owed thanks to what’s known as “live truck in a box” technology consisting of a bundle of wireless phones that stream data back to the station.

Also clever this time around was the use of time-lapse photography. WRTV Chief Meteorologist Kevin Gregory, for example, relished in assembling a group of images throughout the weekend that showed locations being snowed under, plowed, snowed under, plowed and so forth. Gregory, by the way, brought a sleeping bag to work so not to miss out on the run.

It was a different story for WISH meteorologist Robb Ellis, who got sick with a fever and was stuck in bed. To the rescue was meteorologist Pamela Gardner.

Some stations—including WTHR—used the same old trick of pulling out a ruler to measure snow.  But WXIN meteorologist Jennifer Ketchmark got creative by taking a wet shirt out into the tundra and waiting to see how long it took to freeze solid–about 2 minutes. It was perhaps the most effective demonstration of the danger of the arctic cold front that brought temperatures of 15 below zero.

Most every station appeared to do their best to endanger reporters by requiring them to do live shots in the cold. By Monday, the noses of many of the intrepid talent looked pretty red.

WXIN reporter Marisela Burgos may deserve an award for being the wisest of the bunch—by wearing a ski mask while out in the cold. The mask was perhaps the most instructive for viewers on the extent of the dangerous temperatures.

Most stations said they’d booked downtown hotel rooms for their teams so they were assured of being able to get to work. At one point, one of those hotels became news fodder, with a WISH reporter recounting what it was like to wake up without electricity or heat after a power failure.

The additional coverage came in handy. On Monday the station launched a previously announced expansion of its half-hour 10 p.m. newscast on sister station WNDY Channel 23 to a full hour.

“We had lots of news,” White said of the weather.

It also had lots of football and basketball news, which will continue to occupy the last 15 minutes of its hour-long newscasts at 10 pm.

WTHR also got kudos from Gov. Mike Pence for contacting the Indiana State Police to rescue a mother and her children stranded on Interstate 465.

"Your ability to reach out quickly to the (ISP) allowed us to be on site within a matter of 15 minutes and get them out of harms way," the governor told viewers.

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