An Anchor's Reminder About the Importance of Broadcast Emergency Alerts

Noted with CommLawBlog approval: TV anchor Nancy Naeve gives churlish audience members what for.

When it comes to emergency alerts about, e.g., dangerous, fast-approaching, weather conditions, a broadcaster’s lot is not enviable. It is often difficult simply to marshal, in very short order, the important details and reduce them to reliable words and images that can be grasped quickly and accurately by the audience. There are regulatory concerns: even the best-intentioned broadcaster doing his or her utmost to get the word out to the public can be unpleasantly whacked after the fact by the FCC for an inadvertent failure to comply 100.000% with certain regulatory requirements. (You can find examples here, here, here, here or here.) And let’s not forget members of the audience, occasionally ungracious and unappreciative, who call to complain when emergency reports interrupt their favorite program.

In other words, broadcasters might have considerable reason not to jump at the opportunity to break into their programming with bad news about bad weather.

Still, emergency alerts save lives and property. It is difficult to conceive of a public service of greater importance. And despite the difficulties and risks to their own operations, broadcasters have historically stepped up to the plate over and over again to serve their audiences in this valuable way.

We say all this because the video clip below caught our attention this morning.

It appears that a tornado blew through Sioux County, Iowa. Nearby KSFY-TV, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, dutifully broke into its regular programming to get the word out. At least one woman confirmed on camera that, thanks to the station's alerts, she had reached out to family members who were apparently able to get to shelter in time. And yet, other audience members complained, heatedly and repeatedly, about the fact that the alerts interrupted their favorite shows. The next day an anchor during the early morning news reacted with an eloquent extemporaneous defense of the station:

Is it good business to criticize the station’s audience? Of course not – that’s like biting the hand that feeds you. So big CommLawBlog props to KSFY anchor Nancy Naeve, for speaking the hard truth to short-sighted viewers. Broadcasters provide entertainment, but they also provide public service, and the latter is often (as it was for KSFY) of considerably greater value to the public. For telling it like it is, Ms. Naeve – thanks.

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Mike - May 14, 2014 6:25 PM

This highlights the need for geographic targeting of Emergency Alerts. There are no provisions in EAS to target messages across the vast areas midwest TV stations like KSFY serve. They have no currently alternative to interrupting programming a hundred miles from the area at risk. The FCC and FEMA need to look at this need seriously. The smartphone industry could easily create an "App for that". It's unfortunate broadcasters and the FCC and FEMA don't have that kind of combined power via multicast DTV (switch on active alert in affected areas to the instantly activated Emergency Multicast channel). The "crying wolf" analogy comes to mind for viewers no where near the area.

Sharon - May 15, 2014 3:21 PM

Not everyone has a smartphone, Mike, and not everyone may have access to their smartphone when these situations occur.

And better to warn too many people than let others die or suffer grievous injury rather than interrupt a TV addict's habit. If someone is skeptical about and wants to verify whether an alert applies to their area, they're free to go online to the NWS and check. Otherwise, they should consider that the next alert could apply to them and adjust their expectations accordingly.

BTW, "crying wolf" is a poor analogy. It refers to deliberately misleading someone about imminent danger. That's not the function of the EAS, and it's a mistake to imply that it is.

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