I went into television in 1979, when I was 25 years old. The weather was cold, very cold. The winters of the 1960s and 1970s were some of the most brutal of the last century. And stubbornly, the cold would not release it’s bone-numbing grip.
Magazines sported stories of a coming Ice Age. The winter of 1976-77 was so cold that the state of Ohio virtually closed for the month of January. A great blizzard in January 1978 brought hurricane force winds and record snowfall to the Midwest. Just a few weeks later, another massive blizzard of historic proportions closed Boston and Providence for a week. Snow fell in Miami on January 19, 1977.
Energy conservation was all the rage. People were buying solar panels to put on their houses to heat hot water. Tiny little Japanese cars were selling faster than Japan could make them — not only for the fuel efficiency, but because they were all front-wheel drive, better for handling in the never-ending snowstorms.
The situation was alarming to some people. A select committee of climate experts came together in January 1978. They declared that there was no end in sight to the 30-year cooling trend.
The stage was set for news media to capitalize on these captivating weather stories — but it never happened to the degree it has today. Not even close.
There were several factors at work regarding why. First, there were only three channels on television. They were very competitive with each other, but they were all essentially printing money. NBC, ABC, and CBS controlled what the public saw and heard, along with the newspapers — which were thriving. The major media outlets were king.
Second, there was no internet. You got your news from the small group of information outlets, and that was it. It’s hard to imagine a world without blogs and websites freely writing and editorializing about the stories of the day, but this simply did not exist.
And third, there were no rapidly evolving technologies forcing change. Television, radio, and print were healthy and profitable. The marketplace was in their control, and life was good.
As the 1980s dawned, market conditions began to change. It started with CNN, ESPN, HBO, and The Weather Channel, among others.
The planting of cable TV across the nation was a double-edged sword for the traditional television networks. It gave them a much better and more consistent signal, but it also put a hole in their revenue stream. Total audience for the big three television networks peaked in the early to mid-1980s and has been falling ever since. Combine that with the internet, satellite TV, and expanded radio offerings, along with a myriad of other technological innovations, and today you have a much more complex and competitive marketplace.
How does this figure in with global warming? It all started in 1988, when Dr. James Hansen of NASA testified before Congress on a very hot summer day. He said global warming is real, is caused by human burning of fossil fuels, and is a danger to the future of the planet.
Overnight, everything changed.
This testimony was the catalyst needed to fuse the weather, climate, and human drama into a gripping narrative which the news media could desperately use. There were plenty of dramatic life-and-death weather stories in the 1960s and 1970s, however there was no way to link what was happening to the climate and what people were doing. There was a weak attempt to link air pollution with colder weather, but it never took hold. There were stories about bitter cold and savage blizzards, but no “it’s our fault” stories.
But after Dr. Hansen’s testimony in 1988, media outlets began to fashion news stories that appealed to the portion of the audience that was convinced humans were destroying nature. The growth of the environmental movement from the 1960s on had already planted those seeds. In the cold weather of the 1960s and 1970s, people were still seen as victims of nature, but now the roles were reversed — a fresh new story, good for ratings. The human drama brought weather into people’s homes and lives. We had to start thinking about what we were doing to nature: no longer the victim, but the destroyer.
Television market shares continued to erode through the 1990s, and old media was desperate to stop the bleeding. They hired consultants to tell them what to air to at least retain what audience they still had. And it turned out that weather was right near the top of the list of most popular topics. Weather stories began to get more air time.
I was working for a television station in Connecticut during this period, and stories about weather that would never have seen the light of day were now the leading the show! An executive producer once told me: “Weather trumps all!” The implication was that a weather story would get priority over almost anything else making news that day and that you should never miss an opportunity to make a weather story more than it really was.
One evening, I had predicted a light snowfall of 1 to 2 inches. I commented on-air:
It’s really no big deal, just a little snow but nothing we can’t handle.
The general manager of the station took me aside after the program and said:
When it comes to weather, don’t say “no big deal.”
Dramatic life-and-death weather stories don’t simply occur when you need them, such as during a ratings period. But the global warming drama?
It could always be there.
Global warming supplies news outlets with an endless stream of planet-endangering, guilt-extracting drama that can be linked to all aspects of human activity. The production of carbon dioxide by industrial activity threatening a future climate catastrophe — this is the global warming doctrine. The very fossil fuels that lifted societies to unprecedented prosperity being cast as climate killers. Weather, climate, and prosperity all wrapped into one very convenient eco-economic package.
Any story that dealt with economic activity was linked to global warming. Any story about global warming was linked to human industrial activity. This amalgamation of previously unrelated phenomena was the consultant’s dream: All of what civilization does to produce energy and prosperity demonized in the name of saving the planet, with old media playing the hero role of saving the world from ourselves. A just and noble cause, and simply too irresistible of a story for struggling companies to resist.
Media outlets now are looking at a terribly uncertain future. Market shares and profits continue to plummet, newspapers are closing, and television stations and networks are reducing staffs.
When someone is drowning, they will grab whatever is around to save them. Dying media clutched at global warming as a way to stay afloat for a little while longer.