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Weathering Tuesday's latest storm of program pre-emptions

Funnel clouds again were the money shots Tuesday. Photo: Ed Bark

The weather turned frightful in some areas of North Texas for a second straight day Tuesday, with D-FW's four major TV news providers all opting for continuous coverage from late afternoon through early evening.

Oprah Winfrey, Judge Judy, the network evening newscasts, the 6:30 p.m. syndicated rag mags and Wheel of Fortune all were rubbed out by the warnings of dangerous developments in mostly outlying areas. Network prime-time coverage also was affected, although not unduly save for Fox4.

NBC5 went directly to a 7 p.m. episode of its network's The Biggest Loser, providing weather updates during commercial breaks while keeping weather graphics in play.

WFAA8 initially preempted a first-run warmup for Tuesday's Dancing with the Stars results show, but soon joined it in progress.

CBS11 dallied for a bit before going to a rerun of its network's most popular drama series, NCIS.

Fox4 delayed a new 90-minute, heavily promoted Lady Gaga-themed episode of Glee before airing it in its entirely from 7:30 to 9 p.m. instead of 7 to 8:30 p.m. A first-run episode of the comedy series Raising Hope then pushed back the start of Fox4's 9 p.m. newscast to shortly after 9:30 p.m. More on this later, because Fox4 still messed up its presentation of both shows for the many viewers with high-definition TV sets.

Unclebarky.com reader Rachel Dillard got frustrated when the network prime-time schedules initially were compromised on three of the four stations. Her concerns, which likely were shared by numerous viewers, came pouring out via email.

"I'm astounded. Should I be?" she began. "Every station except 5 is showing us a bunch of rain south and east of Dallas. I know they're desperately hoping to be able to show us a funnel cloud dropping out of the sky, but why? . . . It seems to me that the majority of the Dallas market lives north of the storms. I'm sure Tyler has TV stations that are monitoring the storms. My guess is that anybody with a tornado bearing down has no power to watch it on TV or to even hear (WFAA8's) Pete Delkus warn them to take cover.

"I'm not cold or cruel," she added. "But if the stations feel a moral obligation to pre-empt entertainment with mortification, they can find enough going on in the world to do it full-time."

Another reader, who identified himself as "Frank" in the comments section of an earlier post on Tuesday's pre-emptions, said the "seemingly unending weather coverage of storms far to the south and east is a mystery to me. Many of these areas that are being reported have inhabitants who are scattered -- that is, not a dense population. Why do our local stations feel it necessary to 'report' for hours about storms that are in the fringe areas of their coverage?"

These are valid questions and concerns. And the stations respond by saying that if even one life in their viewing area is threatened, it's their duty to keep sounding the alarms.

It also should be noted that severe weather coverage is the one sure-fire viewer magnet remaining at local stations around the country. Meteorologists or AMS-approved forecasters are the kings and queens of their stations. The daily Nielsen numbers keep demonstrating that. So they aren't about to err on the side of too little coverage. Instead you pour it on and hope that some viewers will remember you were there for them. Bailing out early while rivals stick to their weather maps is a risk that's seldom taken -- unless American Idol is airing live. Even though many a viewer in fact might have welcomed a more tempered approach to Tuesday's weather-palooza.

These continue to be tough calls, though. The public safety in fact should be paramount. And who among us didn't also welcome a respite from the nauseating royal wedding overkill Tuesday on the 6:30 p.m. editions of Entertainment Tonight, Extra and Access Hollywood?

Now back to Fox4, which is alone in still not getting the hang of putting up those little fruit salad weather maps or crawls without disrupting HD programming. Instead the station is still shrinking the picture to non-HD size while NBC5, WFAA8 and CBS11 have all figured out how to keep the full-screen HD presentation intact while also running weather info.

On Tuesday night, Glee and Raising Hope were both compromised. But when it came time for commercials, Fox4 erased its weather graphics and went to full HD whenever a sponsor used that format. So the basic question is: If those weather bugs are that necessary, why are they expendable during commercials? Isn't a "tornado watch" or "severe thunderstorm" warning still every bit as important to the public safety during the two or three minutes spent selling something?

Management at Fox4 is not allowed to be quoted on the record about anything involving station personnel or operations. That directive is from Fox corporate headquarters in New York, which handles such inquiries. It's just the way it is. It also makes Fox4 the only D-FW television station currently operating under such restrictions.

But in this case there's no real need for your friendly content provider to shinny up the corporate pole. Whatever the reason -- equipment or otherwise --- Fox4's continued inability to transmit HD pictures in tandem with weather graphics or "crawls" is woefully antiquated and in immediate need of repair. Everyone at the station likely would agree with that, even if no one who actually works at the station is authorized to say so by name.

Fox4 otherwise has considerable momentum in the local TV news game, with its ratings a testament to that. But the tin can phone approach to HD transmission doesn't help when bad weather breaks loose. Instead it only adds to the frustration of viewers who want all of the stations to ease up at least a little with their sky-is-falling weather coverage.