The Messengers

TV forecasters have become the target of viewers who are feeling aggravated and paranoid after an exceptionally stormy winter.

Local TV news watchers know Channel 9 weather prognosticator Kathy Sabine as one of Denver's sunniest personalities. But when she's asked about some of the more emotional responses she's received from viewers since December 20, when a blizzard kicked off a jaw-dropping run of inclement weather that could continue for a month or two more, her mood quickly clouds over.

"Having eight weeks of storms has made a lot of people really crabby," she says. "This one woman left me a voice mail, and she was like, 'You have to stop smiling when you tell us another storm is coming! We're all depressed about it! When you're calling for another storm, you have to act like the rest of us and be a little more down.'"

Sabine isn't the only TV-weather pro to be hit with such cold fronts; her peers at channels 2, 4, 7 and 31 all report similar experiences. Take the January 29 diatribe a web surfer known as Mo sent to the weather blog overseen by Channel 31 predictor Chris Dunn. "I know that it isn't polite to 'kill the messenger,' per se," the post reads. "However, every time you grin real big and tell us that we're about to have another Jack Frost jackfest... I get angry. Angry with you... Show some damn remorse for those of us who actually like to go out on the weekends and not have to dress like Arctic Warfare Patrolmen just to make it to a local hot spot." Mo concludes by confessing, "It took a lot for me not to swear up a storm in this post... But Jesus, man, your reaction to this persistent, recurring, crappy weather... It's almost like it turns you on. Creepy."

Viewers want to know why Kathy Sabine has to be so damn chipper when reporting the snow.
Bryce Boyer
Viewers want to know why Kathy Sabine has to be so damn chipper when reporting the snow.

Dunn understands the psychology behind such reactions. "It's natural for people to get frustrated with the barrage of storms we've had so far this winter," he allows. "And I think a smile or a pleasant presentation may be misinterpreted as sadistic -- like a here-it-goes-again, let's-give-it-to-you kind of thing."

Then again, Channel 7's Mike Nelson concedes that Mo has a point when he suggests that meteorologists look at weather extremes differently than do the average Joe and Jane. "We have to temper ourselves a little bit," he says. "You've got to remember that most of us got into this profession because we like watching storms. As soon as I know a big storm is coming, I'm excited about it. I'm like, 'This is going to be cool to watch.'"

Station execs love excessive precipitation, too. As Channel 2's Dave Fraser notes, "Consultants in our business tell us that when the weather's bad, people tune in." Granted, ratings also ratchet upward after a major news break, and sports-related events can also boost numbers around these parts, especially when they involve the Broncos. But studies consistently show that weather reports attract more TV-news consumers than any other programming feature, and blizzards of the sort that struck the region on December 20-21 and December 28-29, when government officials strongly urged individuals to stay put, transform such folks into a captive audience.

With that in mind, Denver stations offered bonus coverage by supersizing their news broadcasts -- a decision that meant key staffers had to stick around well past the end of their typical shifts. "For the Christmas Eve blizzard, they wouldn't let us go home," says a chuckling Ed Greene, Channel 4's chief forecaster. "We stayed downtown in a hotel two blocks from Channel 4. And for the following blizzard, we did the same thing. I was downtown for two or three days, and on a couple of days, not only did I do the late show, which we stretched to an hour because of the snow, but I came in the next day at 3:30 and did the morning show, which we stretched to four hours."

Not that Greene's complaining. "This was a big deal," he argues. "This was like our Super Bowl of weather."

If so, the spectacle went into overtime. Storm after debilitating storm hit on a regular basis for the first month and a half of 2007, piling more inches of snow and ice on neighborhood streets that already looked more like luge courses than residential roadways. These systems resulted in an across-the-boards ratings bonanza. All of the weathercasters say viewership at their stations went up during each successive onslaught, sometimes by enormous amounts. "For our newscasts at four, five and six," 9News's Sabine says, "we might have tripled our usual business."

In addition, TV forecasters enhanced their reputation for being able to see several days into the future -- a skill few demonstrated in month-long surveys conducted by Westword in 1992 and 2002. Improved equipment has helped improve accuracy in the past five years, Sabine believes; she feels three-day predictions are now nearly as reliable as the one- or two-day variety. But geographic anomalies and climate factors unique to the area present challenges of their own. One day last week, she says, "it was 71 degrees downtown, but the official weather station is at DIA, and it was only 50 degrees there. So if I forecast 50 degrees, I'm technically right -- but if people driving around see 71 degrees on a bank thermometer, I look like a moron."

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