Flower Show Isn’t Only Victim of TV News’ Wrong Weather Forecasts

Drew Becher should sue the local TV news stations for snowstorm hype.

The President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Drew Becheris ticked at Kathy Orr, Cecily Tynan and Sheena Parveen. The coven of weather women and their gangs of meteorologists cost him an atrium of money: $1.2 million to be exact. That’s how much the 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show lost because, Becher told the Philadelphia Inquirer, of a flurry of false forecasts.

Becher accused the local TV newscasts of “hyping up” a major snowstorm that never happened. “It was a snow drumbeat, and it was relentless,” according to Becher. The forecast in early March was for up to a foot of snow in the Philadelphia area. The reality was a dusting that was washed away by rain.

To be fair, it is not the meteorologists who beat the drums. News managers and producers pushing for ratings will start a newscast with archived video of a massive snowstorm and have the news anchor say something like “this is what you may wake up to this weekend.”

The TV news hype in early March was a cavalcade of snow video and reporters standing by salt piles to assure us the area was ready for the worst. It caused 40,000 visitors to cancel their trip to the Flower Show, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost ticket and merchandise sales. Becher now says he must cut costs and rely on donors and an insurance policy to make up for the loss.

And to Mr. Becher and his flower people I say: Join the club. Every time there is a famously blown forecast on the news, people and businesses suffer. Restaurants and hotels lose reservations, construction sites close down and events are canceled. The small businessman doesn’t have donors he can call or insurance he can afford; he just sucks it up and curses Hurricane Schwartz.

The problem always comes from long-range and mid-range forecasts, which most meteorologists hate but TV stations insist on. In the last few years, stations, in a frenzy of blind competition, expanded the seven-day forecast to a 10-day forecast. Many, including Schwartz, refuse to call it a forecast—instead, it’s his 10-day “outlook.” A 10-day “best guess” would be more like it. The accuracy of a forecast drops exponentially that far out.

As much as for a weekend of roofies and Russian women, John Bolaris will be known for labeling an approaching weather system “the storm of the century” when it was at least six days away. The storm missed us, and Bolaris became the poster boy for blown forecasts.

Why did he do it? It was the last night of sweeps in February 2001, and NBC 10 needed a big number to once again beat 6 ABC. Bolaris spotting the big storm to the south on his weather charts led to a crawl across the bottom of viewers’ screens during Law & Order that warned of “a potential Storm of the Century,” and that led to record ratings for that night. Big storms = big ratings = big money. The TV stations make millions whether the storm actually materializes or not, but the local businesses lose millions in collateral damage.

If it can be argued that it is irresponsible to try to forecast the weather with any specificity five to 10 days out, it’s even more irresponsible to hype that forecast in the news. And if financial damage is done to local businesses while TV stations profit, then why can’t the TV stations be sued for the losses? I think a jury of our peers would love to make a statement about missed forecasts.

The Philadelphia Flower Show has a unique opportunity to make the country a better place. I know that TV stations are particularly skittish about lawsuits, resulting in the dismantling of many investigative units. If Mr. Becher and his Flower Show, or its insurance company, were to sue the local stations, TV newsrooms across the country would take notice. The “storm hype” viewers so loathe would diminish greatly.

Instead, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society just announced a partnership with 6 ABC to offer gardening tips to viewers. And so Becher’s bluster about the bad TV newscasts also seems to be “hyped up”: a lot of big talk and, in the end, nothing happens.