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Weather Channel is latest to jump on reality television bandwagon

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

By David Bauder, The Associated Press

You know reality TV is entrenched as a genre when The Weather Channel, the most conservative network this side of C-SPAN, is hopping on the bandwagon.

The Weather Channel debuted back-to-back episodes of its new nightly series, "Storm Stories," last night.

Don't worry. This isn't "When Hailstorms Attack" or "Weathercaster Idol." Although, when you think about it, some version of "Fear Factor" with an angry public confronting soggy meteorologists whose predictions of a sunny weekend were washed out could be fun.

"Storm Stories" is exactly as it sounds: people recounting, with video footage and some artful re-creations, how they were caught in severe weather.

"What we've really been missing is the human element and the demonstration of what these powerful weather events can do to people," said Terry Connelly, the network's senior vice president for programming.

The Weather Channel has carved a solid reputation among those who are serious about the weather. But it has been outflanked by networks such as Discovery and PBS when it comes to real-life stories about life-threatening storms.

"Storm Stories" is an outgrowth of the network's now-defunct newsmagazine, "Atmospheres." In focus groups, viewers said their favorite element of that series was the personal stories.

Connelly said The Weather Channel wanted to avoid overly hyped stories -- such as other networks' "The Wrath of Nature" or "Savage Skies" -- that cheapen the genre. He calls these series "disaster TV."

Indeed, some early episodes of "Storm Stories" are clunky in their conservatism.

"As you can imagine, it was a night they will always remember," host Jim Cantore says in introducing an episode about a tornado that damaged Hoisington, Kan., and ripped apart a family's home on their son's prom night.

Well, duh!

But there are some compelling stories, and the series doesn't forsake modern production techniques. In the tornado episode, producers use a shaky camera -- almost like MTV! -- to approximate the chaos of the whirlwind overhead. And when talking about the prom family's experience, only a snapshot of their daughter is shown until the end. The simple trick builds suspense about whether or not she survived.

One interesting episode interviews survivors of a World War II disaster in which 790 sailors died when their ships were caught in a typhoon off the Philippines.

A retired sailor, Archie Deryckere, recounts being tossed from his ship into roiling waters and surviving a harrowing night, only to see fins circling him at daybreak.

"I said a prayer," he said. "Lord, first you sink my ship, you keep me in the water all night. Then you're going to have me eaten by a shark? That's just not right."

There's even some useful nuggets of information. For instance, resist the temptation to hide beneath a highway underpass if a tornado is nearby; it adds to the danger. And if you're trapped at sea, urine is safer to drink than sea water.

Cantore, a meteorologist, is the closest thing The Weather Channel has to a heartthrob. He started at the network in 1986, waking up at 2:30 a.m. to start a shift talking about heat waves and cold fronts. "Storm Stories" is now his full-time job, although he will occasionally pop up as a reporter during big storms.

He's jazzed about traveling around the world to report these stories.

"As much as we tell people about the hazards of weather, you don't really believe it until you see someone in it," he said.

Cantore's closest brush with dangerous weather came two years ago when he did some storm-chasing in Texas. He got a little too close to a tornado, which passed right in front of him and shook his car, close enough to imagine the ironic headline: Weather Channel forecaster blown away in storm.

Back-to-back half-hour episodes of "Storm Stories" will run each weeknight. Enough episodes have been shot and planned to go about two months before reruns start seeping in, Connelly said.

The series may seem like a natural, but such schedule changes come with a risk other networks don't face. Many of The Weather Channel's fans thrive on the network's predictability; no matter what time they tune in, they know what they are going to get, and they don't like to be disturbed.

Connelly said The Weather Channel will update viewers with local forecasts on the bottom of the screen during "Storm Stories" and will pre-empt the series during a big weather event.

The Weather Channel's problem is that there have been relatively few such events lately. Although the past few weeks have been stormy -- the Christmas Day storm on the East Coast earned the network some of its best ratings -- a couple of mild winters have kept the excitement down.

"We're looking at ways to fill the valley between major weather events," Connelly said.

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