President Obama’s Climate Change Speech and The Heidi Bowl

Last week, there were 3 domestic mega-news stories:

  1. On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court essentially struck down the Voting Rights Act.
  2. Also on Tuesday, President Obama gave a long-awaited speech on Climate Change.
  3. On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court finished its session by issuing 2 rulings that made federal recognition of gay marriages a reality.

Big news week, to be sure, especially when you add the Paula Deen (who is this woman and why should I care?) to the list.  However, leaving Ms. Deen out of it, only 2 of these stories were treated like mega-stories.  Both Supreme Court pieces got the wall-to-wall coverage one now expects on all of the cable and broadcast news shows as well as page 1, above-the-fold treatment in the major newspapers.

The President’s 45+ minute speech that announced major rules changes, through the EPA, that will limit carbon emissions from coal plants, as well as other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote clean energy technologies and to mitigate against the already baked-in effects of climate change?  Uh, not so much.

The speech, termed the best on climate change by any US President by Al Gore, was shown in brief snippets on the cable news shows.  MSNBC only showed it for 41 seconds.  Fox aired it for a few minutes and then did an interview with a climate change skeptic (surprised?).  CNN, which did about a week of non stop coverage of the “Poop Cruise” could only spare 5 minutes on the President’s speech on perhaps the most challenging and important issue facing the planet.  And Wolf Blitzer was talking over the President and then they cut away for “breaking news” at the Trayvon Martin trial.

This pathetic coverage brings to mind The Heidi Bowl.  What is The Heidi Bowl, you may ask?  Late November, 1968.  The New York Jets are playing the Oakland Raiders in Oakland, with both teams vying for supremacy in the upstart American Football League and, eventually, perhaps, a spot in Super Bowl III vs. the champions of the established National Football League.  The game started at 4 PM EST and was televised nationally on NBC.  It went long because of an unusual number of injuries, fights and penalties.  With about a minute and change left, the Jets were up 32-29 and the Raiders had the ball.  At 7 PM EST, NBC chose to send the east coast viewers to see their “regularly scheduled program”, in this case, the children’s movie, “Heidi”.  I was 9 years old at the time, an absolute Jets nut (still am) (hold the snide remarks, please) and remember rushing to the radio to try and tune the game in, bewildered that my TV screen showed some annoying little girl strolling through the Alps.  Of course, in that 1 minute and change, the Raiders scored a touchdown, recovered a Jets fumble on the ensuing kickoff and ran that in for another touchdown.  The Raiders won 43-32.  People went nuts.  NBC’s phone system crashed.  David Brinkley had to go on the nightly news to make an apology.  The Heidi Bowl has long been a part of football lore.

What is the link between the Obama speech and the Heidi Bowl?  The networks decided both the President’s speech and the Jets-Raiders game were not ratings winners and decided to cut away to programming that would, they thought, draw a better audience.  The difference, of course, is that nothing has proven to draw better ratings more consistently than pro football.  In fact, the Heidi Bowl was the last time anyone would be stupid enough to cut away from a pro football game for regularly scheduled programming.

On the other hand, it’s likely any future speeches climate change speeches from the President will get continue to get the Jets-Heidi treatment.  Because climate change is not yet a ratings winner, sadly.  Why?  There are many, some more obvious than others.  I’ll focus on one here, the winner-loser phenomenon.

Football (and all other sports, for that matter), have a winner and a loser in a relatively short (3-4 hours) period of time (except Cricket which can last for days) (but no one in the US cares about Cricket).  Climate Change?  It’s effects are years, decades, sometimes centuries in the making.  And, while it’s certain, scientifically, that climate change is real and it’s human-caused, ascribing any weather event (Sandy, Katrina, drought, etc.) to climate change involves nuance (i.e. Sandy may have occurred absent climate change but climate change likely made it more severe).  Yes, we do see powerful effects of climate change in real time but even that is not sexy to the population at large.

So, you have football/other sports with  clearly defined winners-losers and quick results.  Climate Change:  No clear results and long-time effects.  How do we who care about Climate Change and, thus, Saving Humanity As We Know It, change this?  It ain’t gonna be easy, I’m not gonna lie to ya!  But it’s possible.  A couple of small-ball suggestions:

  • See the the fantastic documentary Chasing Ice to see Arctic See Ice Extent Loss made (somewhat) sexy!
  • Become a climate change activist and spread the word.  It’s quite easy to do.  One way is to visit realitydrop.org, a new site from the Climate Reality Project, Al Gore’s non-profit that has trained 4,000+ volunteers over the last 7 years (including yours truly) to give the “An Inconvenient Truth” slide show in their communities.  Realitydrop posts articles that deny the truth about climate change and provides an easy way for you to debunk those articles in the media in which they appear (ready-made letters to the editor).  It also allows you to write in in support of articles that tell the truth.  Easy, easy way to make an impact.
  • Write to the cable news networks (CNN, Fox, MSNBC) and demand they cover climate change more aggressively.  Tell them their lack of coverage of the President’s speech was like the Heidi Bowl.  I’m going to write them today–will share the letter with you.
  • Start your own Climate Change Programming Network!  If you choose this option, it’s a good idea if you’d have some serious $$.  Also if you choose this option, let’s talk, I could be one of your anchormen!!

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6 thoughts on “President Obama’s Climate Change Speech and The Heidi Bowl”

  1. I don’t remember the Heidi Bowl, but the analogy is perfect.

    The networks — and the media in general — sometimes latch onto one story and run with it at the expense of news that, down the road, turns out to be much larger and more important. I’m sure there were other newsworthy things happening the day O.J. Simpson took his long, slow drive out of sports fame and into murder trial infamy, but you would not have known it at the time.

    The climate crisis is almost too big for the news media to cover. It’s big, complicated, involves science, makes people uncomfortable, makes some corporations angry, it has no simple solutions and the sound bites suck. Of course that doesn’t mean that professional journalists shouldn’t rise to the occasion and cover it. They should! And cutting away from the President is a Heidi Bowl moment.

  2. Thanks, Candy! It really baffles me that MSNBC is going all-in on the Trayvon Martin case and basically ignoring the climate change story. Chris Hayes did do a long segment on the speech…at the end of his hour-long show. The NY Times also shuttered their Green desk. And these are news organizations that are not skeptical about the science. Forget about Fox News.

  3. I think the problem is the lack of easy sound bites. Climate change is simply too complicated for a five-second headline. It’s also about science — which means you have to pay attention and deal with numbers and ambiguity. There’s also the DRAMA factor. Short of Sandy-sized storms, most of the climate change stories lack sizzle. Sizzle sells…

  4. Thank you very for intriguing article, I am not American citizen but Heidi Bowl is an interesting analogy. However,this boils down to policy making we need to to mainstream media in fighting climate change. It is Ironical that developing countries are staged to suffer more from the impacts of climate change but the media is less concerned about the issue. Probably we need to document the impacts of climate change on media for climate change to receive the required attention.
    Candy Korman I don’t totally agree with you that climate change is complicated affair,what we need the media to air is the projected effects of climate change and possible adaptation measures which are very simple to grasp, as simple as 1+1

  5. Thanks, Karanja, for your comment. Clearly we need significantly more media coverage of Climate
    Change, both in the developing and developed worlds. GreenSportsBlog is trying use the prism of sports, which receives endless coverage, to highlight the scant attention climate change receives. Hopefully, shining this light on the lack of coverage will move the needle in the right direction.

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