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Meteorologists Interrupt Popular TV to Save Lives, Spark Audience Anger

Soccer fans in parts of northern Pennsylvania and New York missed the last minutes of the FIFA World Cup 2014 final earlier this month due to an interruption for potentially deadly severe weather.

The interruption sparked anger and frustration among some viewers of the Elmira, New York, ABC affiliate WENY, who made the decision to cut away for live coverage of a tornado warning.

"If it was me, I'd do the same thing," Birmingham, Alabama, Television Meteorologist James Spann said. "Will hate mail come? Will the haters come? Absolutely."

The most important responsibility for a television meteorologist or weather reporter, according to Spann, is to pass along critical warnings concerning weather events that could potentially injure or kill members of the community in the station's designated market area, or DMA.

It does not matter what the television program's subject matter is, Spann said, adding that it could be soccer, popular musical performances, football, soap operas or a news broadcast, some viewers will become upset when it is interrupted.

Elmira market viewers took to Twitter with a storm of angry tweets following the station's live coverage that continued until the end of the World Cup final.

"You know, haters are going to hate," Spann said. "They're going to come after you, but you just have to remember that you have to do the right thing. And doing the right thing is passing along critical weather information that could save somebody's life."

Orlando, Florida-based Television Meteorologist Glenn Richards said he understands to some extent why some people miles away from the warning area may be upset by an interruption, but added that the people who express frustration would probably want to be warned if the threat of injury or death loomed near their own homes.

"You get it all the time," Richards said.

Severe thunderstorms are very common to the area in Florida housing Richards' designated market area, he said, which is why less intrusive text-crawls are often used unless the weather event is extremely dangerous or unusual.

Every news station has a different set for rules and regulations for making interruptions to television programming for severe weather.

"I'd say, for every station the answer is different," Spann said. "I have a pretty unique situation; I'm very fortunate. I have full control. I do not have to consult my superior, I do not have to consult the general manager of the television station - I have the right to go on any time I want to with no questions asked, not everyone has that, but I do."

Under the Federal Communications Commission guidelines for the Emergency Alert System, stations are required to disseminate information regarding a potential emergency if requested; however, the station can determine their own method to pass this critical information along to the public, Spann said.

According to Richards, during major television programming events, two boxes will often be featured simultaneously - one for severe weather coverage, while the larger box plays the more popular program.

Social media, other channels and online channels can be used to supplement information for a television broadcast, but Spann said a majority of people still utilize the television for their updates, and a primary channel should always be used for potentially life-threatening situations.

"Every station is different," Spann said. "That's a very big decision to make. The station loses a lot of revenue when you're doing [emergency] weather coverage."

In some cases, the population of the warned county in the market area may contribute to whether or not a broadcast is interrupted, Spann said, but he feels it should not matter if it is a rural area or a large city.

While some alternatives to making an interrupting broadcast are possible, he said, it is still vital to be on a primary television channel even if the deadly threat is only in a small portion of the entire market area.

In most cases, it is not possible to target a specific county in a market area, he added.

"One of things that we're going to have to look at here as the times change and media distribution changes, are there ways to make everyone happy and yet we can do our job?" Spann said. "Sooner than later, there will be a solution."

If lives are in danger, interruptions should be made even if it is a small portion of the entire market, he said.

"I don't think you should discriminate against someone because they live in a rural county," Spann said, adding that some TV stations do not continue to broadcast for a tornado warning once the threat has diminished for more heavily populated area.

"I find that offensive and idiotic," he said. "In my DMA, we have 25 counties and even if it's the most rural county that's 80 miles away, if it's a tornado warning, we do the same thing; when you go on the air then you stay on the air."

Richards said in Orlando, when he goes on-air for a tornado warning, he also stays on-air for the entire duration of the event.