In this answer from the January 2013 issue, Dr. Know gets to the root of our weather-related anxieties.
I’ve heard about Cincinnatians skiing in the streets and walking across the frozen Ohio River during the brutal winters of 1977 and 1978. So why is it that these days the mere rumor of snow causes our citizens to cancel all activities and hunker down at home? —Annoyed
Dear Annoyed:Like everything else in the modern world, the collapse of moral fiber here at the southern edge of the snow belt can be traced directly to economic forces, specifically the economics of telecommunications. In 1977, Cincinnati’s TV news was 30 minutes at 6 p.m. and 30 minutes at 11 p.m. Out of each half hour, approximately 25 percent of the time was needed to cover garage fires, 15 percent to show puddles of blood in driveways where murdered bodies had once lain, 30 percent to cover high school sports, 20 percent for commercials, 2 percent for local government, and the remaining 8 percent for weather reports delivered by old white guys who looked like they had a cigarette going off-screen.
Sometime in the early 1980s, television scientists discovered that American televiewers preferred the weather segment on the TV news to all other features. Conveniently for the bumper crop of weather alarmists being turned out by communication departments at state universities everywhere, local news—cheap to produce and easy to sell ads for cars, replacement windows, and vinyl siding on—expanded to 90 minutes, and weather stretched to fill the void. In the war for ratings, and with oceans of time to fill, weather coverage turned into a contest to see who could incite the most fear and panic in viewers who, having lost the ability to step outside the house and look at the sky, came to believe terrorizing weather reports as if they had something to do with reality. It was all downhill from there.
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