From the General Manager

An obligation to warn

Posted May 17, 2010 5:34 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2010 5:53 p.m. EDT

I want to take a moment to write about a topic that hundreds of you wrote to us about: pre-empting 17 minutes of the "Survivor" finale.

Those who wrote were very upset. Although, I did not see one e-mail complaint from anyone who was about to be impacted by the storm.

As inconvenient as it may seem to viewers who are not in the path of the storm -- there is no BAD time to save someone's life.

In return for the right to use public airwaves, WRAL and other broadcasters pledge to serve the community. Providing life-saving information during severe weather is one of the greatest obligations we have, and WRAL has a clear and consistent history of putting viewers' lives ahead of any other programming commitments.

It's not easy, it's not clean, it's sometimes very unpopular with a majority of unaffected viewers -- but it's the right thing for us to do.

There were several themes from the comments of our loyal viewers. I will try to respond to them.

While television relies heavily on the visual component, a crawl or un-narrated split-screen effect is not enough when a tornado warning has been issued. WRAL employs highly trained meteorologists to make sense of radar images and time-sensitive information from the National Weather Service. The very best way to convey that information quickly and thoroughly is for a meteorologist to go on the air to explain what is happening at that very second.

When tornadoes rip through neighborhoods -- seconds can make a huge difference. Taking additional time to type and air a crawl or set up a split screen visual effect is simply not acceptable in the case of a tornado warning. Time is too critical.

Forcing viewers to try to interpret radar information themselves deprives them of the detailed, street-level data that can only be provided quickly and clearly by a meteorologist on the air live, in real time.

Despite the obvious programming flexibility that comes with our additional digital channels -- nothing trumps our obligation to protect viewers in the WRAL viewing area.

Splitting our programming sets up a no-win scenario, and whether we chose to push weather information OR entertainment programming over to a channel such as WRAL.2 -- a sizable number of our viewers would miss out on critical weather information.

We are simply not willing to choose which viewers will get the information that might save their lives. Every viewer deserves that information, whether it is pertinent to their home at the moment or not.

Many of you also complained about repetition. There are two aspects to this.

The first is the fact that we know not everyone watches us at the beginning of a report. We have new viewers constantly coming to the television set who need the information.

Secondly, radar needs to cycle to show the movement of the storm. To go on the air and simply say a tornado is on the ground at a single location is only part of our obligation. That's clearly important, but the path of the storm is just as important and could potentially save many more lives.

It's like the difference between a tornado snapshot and a tornado movie. One shows what's happening at one moment in one location, while the other shows where the storm is headed and who is in the likely path. Determining the path of a storm takes time, even with powerful radars and other technology.

Our goal is to provide the most accurate, timely information possible. In the case of tornadoes, that means we must wait to see where the storm is headed. It does take time, but it pays dividends in giving viewers more time to take cover. We're comfortable with that trade-off.

I assure you that after this type of event we review our policies and procedures keeping our core mission of protecting lives at the top of the list.

I apologize for the inconvenience the majority of you felt during "Survivor." But as you can tell from the picture of the storm damage, some people were even more greatly inconvenienced last night--they are the real Survivors. It was our obligation to warn them.