Tornado vs. game? It's an easy call

Tornado vs. game? It's an easy call

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CHAMPAIGN — Twenty-two people were injured, 66 homes had major damage and 34 homes were severely damaged or destroyed.

But for some Champaign TV viewers, the hardest part of Saturday's Taylorville tornado was not being able to watch Alabama come back against Georgia for the SEC championship.

"We had hundreds of complaints," said Gary Hackler, general manager of local CBS affiliate WCIA. "There were lots of upset people. We understand that, but we hope they understand our position."

When a storm rolls through, Hackler said the first consideration is public safety.

"Whenever there's a direct threat to any place in our viewing area, we want to give them advance warning and up-to-the-minute facts as we find them out in the field covering events," he said.

This is usually triggered by a tornado warning, he said, but may also happen for flood warnings or other severe weather.

"Anytime that people's lives can be at risk, we will break into the programming," Hackler said.

The complaints Saturday came in over the phone and on Twitter and Facebook after WCIA cut away at 4:16 p.m., 46 minutes before the EF-3 tornado touched down at 5:02 p.m. with peak winds of 155 mph.

The tornado continued for 11.2 miles before dissipating at 5:23 p.m., damaging 406 homes along the way.

A little bit after noon, weekend meterologist Jack Gerfen informed viewers via Twitter that the station would cut away for weather events and provided a link to an online stream of the game:

WCIA's storm coverage continued until 6:36 p.m., Hackler said, before returning to the football game with about a minute remaining in regulation. Storm coverage returned at 6:56 p.m. and lasted until 7:47 p.m.

The storm "had subsided somewhat when the team made the decision to go back to regular programming," Hackler said. "Then, 20 minutes later, our course of action changed. The results started coming in from Taylorville, and it was proceeding north. The decision was made based on the weather team's expertise."

The decision to cut away is made regardless of what's on, whether it's the Super Bowl or reruns, Hackler said.

"The importance of the sporting event never factors into the decision," he said. "It's all about public safety."

On Twitter, WCIA chief meterologist Kevin Lighty, who went to Taylorville on Saturday to document the tornado, defended the decision to cut away from the game:

Weekend sports anchor Craig Choate referenced drone video taken by Lighty in echoing his remarks:

While side-by-side coverage would potentially be possible, Hackler said that "if there are other options available for viewership, we're a news station first and foremost. The game was streamed on"

And he said it's not yet possible to break away only for a specific area.

"We can't create divergent programming, even on cable or with antenna. The signal is what it is," Hackler said. "I'm not sure what the future will bring, but it won't be in the near future."

Other local TV stations could not be reached for comment Monday.