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The Messengers

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

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."

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."

Regarding the recent storms, though, Denver outlets pinpointed them as much as a week ahead of their arrival and have been downright uncanny in anticipating their severity. This rate of success doesn't surprise Greene. "When things change for a season, they kind of lock up," he says. "When it starts out snowy, with a southern jet stream, it'll usually stay that way until it sets up for spring."

Greene gave Channel 4 loyalists a heads-up about this prospect early on, in the hope that "the forewarning would make them a little less hostile," and he thinks it worked for a considerable portion of metro residents. Others tend to fall into two very different camps: complainers and hearty sorts bugged by all the bitching. "You get a lot of people saying, 'Don't call it bad weather. This is why we live in Colorado,'" says 7's Nelson.

Channel 2's Fraser is hearing these gripes as well, and in an effort to defuse them, he says, "I make it clear that I'm speaking for myself rather than the whole audience. I'll say, 'I've had enough,' not 'We've had enough.'"

Still, countless locals are at their limit, which may account for the rise of what the forecasters see as a weather-related urban myth. In recent weeks, each of them has received calls or e-mails from viewers who've heard that the Old Farmer's Almanac predicts that the mother of all storms will smack Denver in February. Turns out the text relating to the Colorado region, which Channel 31's Dunn posted on January 30, advised readers to expect a storm that might drop a foot of snow -- hardly a historic amount -- on February 4-7, and nothing out of the ordinary after that. Nevertheless, the rumor has actually gathered steam throughout the month. "People are in a panic. I get at least five e-mails a day asking why we aren't warning everyone," says Sabine. "They're like, 'It's your job to tell us! The media is quieting this story! You people are atrocious!'"

The only surefire cure for such fears is for the snow to stop falling, but that probably won't happen for a while; in an average year, March and April are two of Denver's three snowiest months. The forecasters can't say with any certainty how much wet stuff the spring will bring, but Nelson is hopeful that the weakening of the El Niño effect in the Pacific Ocean may lead to lower-than-normal totals. "I think we'll still get our share," he says, "but maybe not quite as much as in some years."

Fraser isn't quite so optimistic. "Five of the six years I've been here, we've been whacked by very heavy snows around then," he recalls.

Whatever happens, Sabine knows some people are going to be unhappy with her, just as they have been for months. "If you tell people what to expect, they're mad at you for telling them," she says, "and if you don't tell them what to expect, they're mad at you for not telling them. We can't win in this business." TV forecasters have become the target of viewers who are feeling aggravated and paranoid after an exceptionally stormy winter.