By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
This summer it became hip to be green in the press, with magazines from Newsweek to Good Housekeeping to Vanity Fair jumping on the bandwagon with celebrity-powered tips on how to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Yet television has been slow to follow this trend.
The Weather Channel hopes to fill this void with a new programming initiative called Climate Watch. The idea is to use its expertise in meteorology and climatology to help viewers better understand the impact of humans on climate change and do it in the most engaging and accessible way possible.
TWC has been ramping up its long-form original programming in recent years, with popular blocks such as Tornado Week and its first daily strip series, “Storm Stories,” which aired its 100th episode in March. But it was the network’s report on the vulnerability of New Orleans for a “what if” series called “It Could Happen Tomorrow” that gave a wake-up call to many at the network. TWC decided it had a responsibility to warn people what was really happening to world climate with more in-depth programming and more analysis.
The New Orleans episode, which speculated that the levees would not hold if a Category 5 hurricane hit the city, was originally slated to introduce the series in January 2006. The episode was already in the can but had yet to be televised when a real-life “Cat 5” hurricane, Katrina, hit the city in August 2005.
“We watched in horror as Katrina made its way toward New Orleans, and we saw many of the scenarios that were actually in this episode play out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” said Wonya Lucas, general manager of TWC.
Such reporting has given the network credibility and a certain authority in the eyes of viewers, Ms. Lucas believes. After Katrina hit, TWC postponed the New Orleans episode out of respect for the victims, replacing it with an episode depicting a hurricane battering New York. An updated version of the New Orleans episode surfaced in June under the title “Katrina: The Lost Episode” and has been repeated to solid ratings.
The idea that such shows were overly alarmist was rejected by the network’s programming executives.
“Our reaction was no, this isn’t too dramatic. Our reaction was you have to pound on the pulpit, possibly. Because when you talk to these emergency management officials, in every episode they say people just aren’t paying attention. People are content, they’re lackadaisical, they don’t think it can happen to them,” said Terry Connelly, TWC’s senior VP of programming.
Ms. Lucas contends that one of the reasons there is still debate about whether climate changes are being caused by man is that the media has dropped the ball in presenting the consensus of opinion from the scientific community. Original programming that brings together TWC’s expertise and a variety of scientific opinions should help convince viewers that global warming is a reality, she said.
“It’s really important for us to be a leader in this. People trust us. They rely on The Weather Channel for lifesaving information. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ll help them understand the issues and hear multiple sides of the story,” Ms. Lucas said.
“These topics are not political or economic issues, although we will address those aspects of the debate. But they are human issues, and they are human on a global scale,” said Debora Wilson, president of TWC. “There is simply no way we feel like we can consciously or with good conscience ignore them.”