THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Attack of the light drizzle!

How weather was taken over by the hype machine

By Robert David Sullivan
February 21, 2010

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If you live anywhere around Greater Boston, you probably felt heroic about making it into work during what turned out to be the Storm That Wasn’t. You must remember it, some 11 days ago. With the nation’s capital socked in and New York shut down, we braced for a crippling whiteout of our own, glued to weather reports of the approaching snowmageddon.

Cities and towns closed their schools, airlines grounded their planes, and the governor told “nonemergency” state workers to go home early. And then...nothing. The storm gently dusted our streets with snow and moved on. People felt a bit ridiculous afterward, and even angry toward the meteorologists and city officials who got us so worked up.

If you’ve started to feel that anticlimaxes have become the norm in Boston, you’re right. But it’s not because something has changed about the weather. It’s that something has changed about its packaging. Weather, especially on TV, has exited the realm of straight news, and even of entertainment, and entered the realm of marketing.

Increasingly, weather is being pre-sold as a kind of public drama, one with a distinctive language and set of conventions - the military-like music, the urgent graphics, the rhetoric of promise and veiled threat. We’ve come to take all this for granted in a modern storm forecast. The roots of this approach though, don’t lie in meteorology. They come from the hype of Hollywood and big-event television - a business in which overselling isn’t a sin, as long as you draw an audience.

Of course, in the case of weather, even the best promotional campaign can’t actually control the product once it arrives. The images from blizzards past and the breathless voice-overs promise lots of action, but what we get isn’t exactly a Quentin Tarantino movie, or even Sunday afternoon on the Golf Channel. It’s more like an especially sleepy production of “The Iceman Cometh.” Performed nine times in a row.

In Boston, our fascination with bad weather has a lot to do with the thrill of all weather thrills: the Blizzard of ’78. That was the classic New England storm story - an event whose arc really did parallel the script of a disaster movie.

It came as a surprise to most people. The Boston Herald, for example, predicted 6 inches on the morning of the blizzard, which was not, in those days, a big enough deal for people to stay home from work. And the snow started later than expected, leading many to conclude that we’d escaped the brunt of the storm. The whole setup is familiar to anyone who’s watched a movie about an unsinkable ocean liner, a flammable skyscraper, or a swarm of killer bees: A couple of kooks warn of impending doom, but everyone else blithely tempts fate by getting on the rickety plane, swimming near the site of the shark attack, or, in real life, getting in their cars and driving on Route 128.

The snow kept falling that day in February, and we ended up with 27 inches. The disaster-movie parallel continued after the storm hit: People found themselves stranded on highways or stuck in subway stations with random groups of strangers. The Blizzard of ’78 claimed 54 lives, but legend has it that it also brought out the best in people - as always happens by the end of disaster flicks - and temporarily brought us back to a simpler time when everyone took care of their neighbors. It was the feel-good movie of the winter.

In 32 years, we haven’t had anything quite like it. And it’s unlikely that such a thing could happen again, for several reasons. For one, weather forecasting is more accurate (though snow is still devilishly hard to get right); for another, skittish officials are quicker to call for snow closures, fearful that they’ll be blamed for any reports of abandoned cars or children trapped on school buses.

But if a repeat of the actual disaster movie is unlikely, you wouldn’t know it from the run-up to modern storms. That part has become even more dramatic. What used to be a short bit toward the end of a newscast - “rain likely,” maybe delivered with some jokes - has become a powerful engine for grabbing public attention. The 11 o’clock news now often kicks off with a weather teaser to keep us hooked to the broadcast; last week, even new revelations in the story of shooting rampage suspect Amy Bishop had to wait until Channel 5’s weatherman told us that he’d be back later to give us “the very, very critical timeline” for the next day’s commute.

Weather reports often raise suspense with the kind of squishy language commonly used on political ads. (“It looks like we might be getting up to a foot of snow in parts of our viewing area” is technically accurate even if you don’t see a flake.) And just like the movie industry, the weather biz gets our attention by invoking past hits - as the nonstorm headed our way, one morning newscast heightened the suspense by running two-year-old footage of cars getting stuck in authentically deep snow, accompanied by a new voice-over: “The threat of gridlock is bringing back memories of the midday nightmare of December 13, 2007.”

The weather updates that run all through prime time, tracking even minor storms as if they were epochal events, are pure marketing - usually warning that you’ll have to tune in to a later newscast in order to find out just how many inches we’re going to get. These sit easily alongside nearly identical network promos for entertainment programs - the ones that promise that the next episode of “Lost” will be “the one that changes everything” or that “you won’t believe what happens” on tomorrow’s installment of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Except “Grey’s Anatomy” is a temporary escape from real life, while bad weather can have consequences. Worried public officials - scarred not only by the Blizzard of ’78 but by 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina - add to the sense of near-panic by declaring snow emergencies long before the flakes arrive. Before “no-mageddon,” schools were actually closed. The live shots of traffic jams caused by people leaving work early then become part of the weather report itself - meaning that a storm that hasn’t yet happened, and may never happen, can already be headline news.

In the entertainment world, no movie or TV episode ever quite lives up to the publicity, and we’ve learned to discount the hype. Was that episode of “House” really what everyone was talking about the next day, as Fox warned? Well, no, but you didn’t expect it to be.

But weather still has the power to suck us in. Outside of the occasional crime spree, weather is about the only news left that has the potential to appeal to a wide audience: When it snows, it snows on everyone. So as television gets more and more desperate in its pleas for viewers to “stay tuned,” the weather becomes the one guaranteed grabber. News producers and meteorologists may have to eat some crow after they overestimate the size of a storm - on Channel 25, a forecaster appeared with a paper bag over her head the morning after the nonstorm - but it’s hard to imagine their employers really mind. The principle is the same one behind the hype machine for movies: Hollywood is all about the opening-weekend grosses, before people catch on to whether a film is any good or not.

In a way, the cycle of disappointment fits naturally into the culture. Many of today’s popular TV dramas, even the hyped-up ones, now lean toward existentialism rather than the clear resolutions that audiences once expected. “The Sopranos” ended without telling us the ultimate fate of its central character; the producers of the ever-more-baffling “Lost” are already admitting that a lot of fans will be underwhelmed by the series finale this spring. So maybe it’s fitting to go to bed frustrated by the lack of answers on “Lost,” then to wake up to discover that all that snow promised the night before never materialized either.

But there is also a kind of backlash against the hype. The same way a lot of movie fans simply ignore the ads for new movies and go straight to recommended DVDs, people genuinely interested in the weather often skip the news reports entirely. One of my colleagues goes to the National Weather Service’s website (www.nws.noaa.gov) for its just-the-facts forecasts. I get weather updates on Twitter - they’re sent by a local station, but the website’s 140-character limit helps to keep hyperbole out of the forecast.

Last week, during a moderate snowstorm that actually occurred as predicted, I signed on to Facebook and saw the following message from an acquaintance: “Can anyone tell me the weather in Manchester, NH right now? I have to catch a flight at 3pm out of there and am trying to plan how long it will take me to drive there. Thanks!”

Practical, to the point, and free of unnecessary dramatics. And right below that was a stoic New England reply that could have been sent via telegraph a century ago:

“Snow in Nashua right now.”

Robert David Sullivan is the managing editor of CommonWealth magazine.

(istockphoto; Globe Staff photo illustration)