Following is the second of a series of excerpts from INSIDE THE WEATHER CHANNEL. It’s a continuation from last week’s excerpt.
FROM LAUGHINGSTOCK TO PRICELESS STOCK
A Brief History of The Weather Channel®–Part II
August 15, 1983: The rising sun over the Gulf of Mexico tinted a cluster of billowing thunderheads–the disturbance NHC forecasters were concerned about–pink and gold as the Air Force Hurricane Hunter aircraft that had departed from Keesler AFB earlier approached them. The WC-130 made several turbulent passes through the thunderstorms. In the process, the on-board meteorologist discovered a circular wind pattern and falling air pressure. A tropical depression had formed.
Later in the day, a subsequent flight found winds had increased and the pressure had continued to tumble. That evening, Tropical Storm Alicia was christened about 170 miles south of the Louisiana coast. More importantly, the storm was drifting westward toward Texas. The first big test for the fledgling Weather Channel was coming up. Many at the network, however, realized it might also be its last hurrah. Still, as Alicia turned toward the northwest on the 16th and continued to intensify, the struggling weather firm made the most of its opportunity and began alerting residents along the upper Texas coast that a potentially dangerous storm was approaching.
By the 17th, Alicia, now a hurricane, was deepening rapidly and churning directly toward Houston-Galveston. It thundered over the coastline as a major hurricane (winds of at least 111 mph) very early on the 18th about twenty-five miles southwest of Galveston. In nearby Houston, winds topped 90 mph at Hobby Airport. The damage from Alicia was extensive, $2 billion-worth, making it, at the time, the costliest hurricane in Texas history. The Weather Channel stayed on top of the story and in what could have proved to have been a hollow victory, earned its spurs.
Tom Moore, a meteorologist with The Weather Channel since its inception, points out Alicia became known as the storm that saved The Weather Channel. “Our coverage of the storm,” he said, “gave credence to the argument that there was value in a TV operation devoted to round-the-clock weather coverage.”
That notion that Alicia saved The Weather Channel is perhaps a bit romanticized. There was simultaneously something else going on behind the scenes at the channel that would contribute even more directly to its survival. Still, the timing of Alicia, as we will see, was certainly serendipitous.
Whereas no Sacajawea stepped forth to lead Frank Batten and Dubby Wynne through the Bitterroots, there were some friendly natives who appeared with an offer of help for the intrepid and now very discouraged explorers. Batten recalls: “Out of the blue, several of our largest cable customers sought out one or the other of us and provided a startling and unexpected perspective. The gist of their message was, ‘We don’t want to invest in The Weather Channel, but we don’t want to lose it, either. If subscriber fees are what’s required to keep it going, we would consider paying them.’”
Subscriber fees are per capita viewer fees cable operators pay some, but not all, cable networks. Typically, they amount to a few cents per subscriber. Some networks, however, are able command substantially more. For instance, ESPN, the highly popular sports network, collects fees amounting to a few dollars per subscriber. When The Weather Channel performed its due diligence prior to startup, it was told there was no way it could count on subscriber fees. Thus, the idea that cable operators would be willing to cough up tariffs for The Weather Channel “absolutely stunned” Batten.
Yet, by the end of 1983–probably with a very big boost from the channel’s coverage of Hurricane Alicia–fifteen major cable companies had signed fee-based contracts with The Weather Channel. The upstart operation, only a breath or two from death, had been shown a way out of the wilderness.
Between 1983 and 1986, the number of households subscribing to The Weather Channel burgeoned from 9.4 million to 25 million. The channel had begun broadcasting with just over 4 million homes signed on.
LAWLESSNESS AND HOPE
The Weather Channel, during the 1980s, was a far cry from the smooth, polished operation it is now. Today’s shows are highly-produced, and the on-air presenters, intensely drilled. There are talent coaches, make-up artists, personal shoppers (for wardrobes) and performance critiques.
In the 1980s, shows could be at times goofy and a bit campy, a product of the virtual frat house atmosphere that permeated the channel. The staff, largely young and largely male, was given, in the words of long-time On-camera Meteorologist Bill Keneely, to a “sort of lawlessness.” At times, they not only pushed the envelope, they ripped it.
There was “fun with names,” for instance. Take Cut Bank, Montana. Inject an “n” in Cut at a critical point and you have a word you can’t say on TV. Only it got said. Quickly, of course, so people weren’t sure what they heard.
Did he just say what I think he did?
No, dear, you can’t say that on TV.
Then there was “fun in the studio.” There was a particular on-camera meteorologist–name withheld to protect the guilty–who liked to dart into the studio and pass gas just as someone was going on the air. Snicker. The Weather Channel: bringing air pollution to life.
And it’s a wonder the channel got beyond its first sponsor, Gatorade. There was great excitement, naturally, when the network finally landed a big name to help pay the bills. But all did not go well during Gatorade’s debut. Just prior to doing the first sponsored segment ever at the channel, the on-camera meteorologist said, “We used to call that stuff Gagger-Aid in college.” So you know what he called it on the air.
Fortunately, there was a mature, steadying influence at The Weather Channel during its “Wild West” days: the late John Hope. John, with four decades of experience, was hired as the company’s tropical expert in 1982 after retiring from the NHC. He intended to stay with the network for only a year or two to help it get off the ground. As it turned out, he worked tirelessly for the next twenty, becoming, through no design of his own, the face of The Weather Channel. There probably was a never more unpretentious television icon than John Hope. His on-air presentation was the antithesis of flashy: straightforward, plain-spoken and informative. He was described by some as the Walter Cronkite of weather.
In the heat of battle, he could be curt and demanding. In person and off-duty, laid back and avuncular. He possessed an endless supply of stories about the early days of meteorology and World War II weather support, and would invariably gather small crowds whenever he went into his Uncle Remus routine. But during hurricane season, he seemingly never relaxed. Even when he was at home, he was on constant watch, mainly regarding what was being said on-air.
I manned what could be thought of as a duty-officer desk at The Weather Channel. More than once I got a call from John. The conversations would go something like this: “Buzz,” he’d say, “I just heard [name of culprit goes here] say that that tropical wave in the Atlantic isn’t going to develop further. That’s just not right. It’s moving into an area of higher sea surface temperatures and there’s a upper-level ridge just to its northwest. It could be a depression by the end of the day. Now, you gotta get over there [meaning to the studio] and get that person straightened out.” Which I did. Nothing like throwing John Hope’s name around to get the attention of an on-camera meteorologist.
Outside of incorrectly explaining a tropical weather situation, there were two things on-camera meteorologists could say that would drive John absolutely nuts. Both dealt with personifying hurricanes. One was that a hurricane had a mind of its own. The other was to refer to a hurricane as a he or she. To the first point, John lectured: “Hurricanes react to their environment. They don’t think for themselves.” To the second, he would state flatly: “A hurricane is an ‘it.’” Both Hope-forbidden statements remain anathemas around The Weather Channel to this day.
Part III next week.
Photo: The late John Hope of The Weather Channel
For the first two decades of The Weather Channel’s existence, John Hope was its venerable hurricane expert. He was sometimes referred to as the Walter Cronkite of weather.