Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Schmear of Schmaltz on Your Weather

With sequestration arriving in a great mess of snow and slop, I find myself reflecting on the things that government fails at, and the things it does well.

The measure of that difference can be found in the weather.  Or, rather, the difference between weather dot gov and weather dot com.

The Weather Channel gets a whole bunch of eyeballs at times like this.  When frozen precipitation slops from the skies, the hits to their website soar and we search the menus of our cable system to remind ourselves which of the 578 channels it's on.  Bad weather means viewers, and viewers mean ratings, and ratings mean advertising profit.

Which is why, increasingly, the Weather Channel is insufferable.  Naming every single weather system, because some PR/Marketing team thought it'd drive more traffic?  You've got to be kidding me.  Anyone remember Winter Storm "Khan?"  That's a name you save for a storm that blends a hurricane, a blizzard, and a haboob, the air filled with flying fragments of soft Corinthian leather.  Instead, it gave us a "swath of light snow."  Please.  

When I go to the Weather Channel, I feel manipulated.  It's just so flagrantly selling me something, as unctiously as a glad-handing salesman who's upselling you towards that Premium Product.  Hey, buddy, while yer waitin', why dontcha click through to this video with puppies?  And check out our ads while yer at it!

The deep irony, of course, is that what the Weather Channel is selling is something we already own.  Most of their data comes to them from the National Weather Service, which offers all information about all weather events free to anyone.  The satellites and the radar images and even the forecasts themselves?  All paid for out of our collective wealth, because it's a public good.

Go to the National Weather Service website, and you see the difference.  There are no ads.  There's no flash and fluff and sparkle.  You can get your local forecast, and it's got all the same detail, simply presented.  In genuine emergencies, the alerts are hard-core retro, pitched out in a font that looks like it came straight off the Telex in 1967.  All the NWS cares about is giving you information about weather.  Period.  That's their job.  What is not their job is profit, meaning panic and anxiety are not in their corporate interest.     Those Telex-fonted emergency alerts?  They're in earnest, not fabricated to insure you keep watching.

As I walked my dog through the the nasty slop smearing the sidewalks today, the analogy occurred to me.   The Weather Channel is like a schmear of schmaltz on bread.  

Schmaltz is a Yiddish term, one I'd first assumed was coined to refer to cheesy, treacly entertainment.  The old Lawrence Welk show?  Schmaltz.  Barry Manilow at his 1970s peak?  Schmaltz.

But what schmaltz originally was, or so I learned around my in-laws dinner table, is a spread.   It has one ingredient: Rendered Chicken Fat.  You take rendered chicken fat, maybe with a little salt or flavoring, and then you smear it on your bread.  That's it.  Healthy?  Absolutely not.  Good for you?  Not even vaguely.  It's junk, flavor devoid of value, that you smear on top of the real food.

That analogy seems appropriate.