This is the third and final part of a series of excerpts from Chapter One of INSIDE THE WEATHER CHANNEL. (I’ll kick off a new series of excerpts next week.)
Come to think about it, the title, “From Laughingstock to Priceless Stock,” could apply to the University of Washington football team as well as The Weather Channel. The Huskies had lost fifteen straight games–tying an embarrassing Pac-10 record–until they whipped Idaho two Saturdays ago. “Yeah, but Idaho?” the dubious among us said.
Then it was Southern California, number three in the nation. Now, U-Dub, suddenly ranked 24th in the country (AP poll) has a target on its back. We’ll see if this laughingstock-to-priceless-stock season continues next Saturday against Stanford.
FROM LAUGHINGSTOCK TO PRICELESS STOCK
A Brief History of The Weather Channel®–Part III
In September 1989, John Hope helped bring The Weather Channel to national prominence as the source for hurricane information. Hurricane Hugo, a classic Cape Verde storm and the first category four to hit the U.S. in quite some time, slammed into South Carolina with 140-mph winds. John, red-eyed and rumpled, stayed on the air for 18 consecutive hours, advising and calming residents as the powerful storm swirled from the Atlantic Ocean into the Palmetto State.
For its coverage of Hurricane Hugo, The Weather Channel was awarded a Golden CableACE from the National Academy of Cable Programming in 1991. By the end of that year, the channel was wired to over 50 million households.
Growth at The Weather Channel, both in terms of viewership and employees, continued unabated during the 1990s. By the late ‘90s, the firm had grown so much it was forced to house personnel in several different locations around northwest Atlanta. To centralize operations, in 1997 the channel purchased an eight-story office building on nearby Windy Hill overlooking the busy highway interchange of I-75 and I-285. The building was the former corporate headquarters of Georgia International, an insurance company. One of the building’s main attractions was that it had 18-foot high ceilings in the basement, necessary during the 1970s to house the bulky computers of that era. The high ceilings turned out to be perfect for accommodating the complex lighting needed for television studios. (The main studios of The Weather Channel remained in the basement until 2008 when a new High-Definition studio was christened.) By the end of 2001, the network boasted 80 million subscribers.
In September 2004, with over 88 million subscribers, The Weather Channel established a record for total-day viewers as Ivan, the third powerful hurricane to slam the southeastern U.S. within a month, churned toward the central Gulf Coast. 1.6 million homes tuned in to monitor the fearsome storm’s progress.
The record was broken the following year when over 1.9 million homes clicked on their TV sets to track the now-infamous Hurricane Katrina as it prowled toward the Gulf Coast. While such high viewership often rides on the back of misery, there is a positive side to it: as Katrina approached, the channel reached almost 51 million viewers with storm warnings and safety messages.
It’s unfortunate, but also the nature of the business that the channel’s highest ratings come during severe and often deadly weather. But such is the case for any news or information outlet. The ratings of CNN, Fox or any of the legacy networks soar in the face of disasters and war. Think 9/ll, the Indonesian Tsunami, Desert Storm or the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
NO LONGER A LAUGHINGSTOCK
As The Weather Channel’s personnel matured, the “lawlessness,” as Bill Keneely termed it, disappeared. On-air presentations became more professional; graphics, slicker; production, smoother. Technology made delivery of radar and satellite imagery almost instantaneous and extremely detailed. In addition to the inimitable John Hope, some of the best weather experts in the nation signed on with the network giving it an on-air meteorological credibility that remains unparalleled.
The emergence of The Weather Channel as one of the most highly regarded cable television brands in the nation has been nothing short of remarkable. From 4.2 million subscribers when the switch was first thrown at the network in 1982, the company is now wired into over 97 million homes and businesses. As a point of comparison, The Discovery Channel leads cable networks with 98 million subscribers. During that same period, revenues–mostly from advertising, but also from subscriber fees–skyrocketed from less than $4 million in that bleak year of 1983 to over $300 million today. (Since The Weather Channel was a privately-held company until very recently, revenues were not made public. But in Frank Batten’s book, he pegged the channel’s income at $302 million in 2000.)
The Weather Channel has become not only a media phenomenon, as the title of Batten’s book says, it’s become an icon of American culture. It’s referenced in popular novels, featured as background TV fare in motion pictures and presented as the source of good-natured chuckles in cartoons. But it’s no longer a laughingstock. In fact, it’s been my experience as a former air force officer and defense contractor that The Weather Channel is one of two television networks constantly monitored in virtually every military command post and emergency operations center in the nation. The other network, of course, would be one of the 24-hour cable news channels.
The military, it should be made clear, doesn’t rely on The Weather Channel for forecasts any more than it relies on CNN for intelligence. It uses the networks as sources of information, primarily as early-alert alarms for developing incidents and breaking news. While The Weather Channel does an excellent job at presenting big-picture weather situations across America and, at certain times of the day, overseas, they are of necessity broad-brush panoramas. They lack, for instance, the pinpoint detail required for military operations, such as visibilities, cloud ceilings, icing threats and wind profiles.
Perhaps an even better measure of how far The Weather Channel has come in the last quarter century is reflected in a 2005 Beta Cable Subscriber Evaluation Study. In that study, the channel was ranked number one among cable networks in quality of programming. It also was positioned at the top, tied with several other networks, for viewer satisfaction. The channel has held its own since, remaining in third place for viewer satisfaction during 2008.
There is a small but strange irony that accompanies the channel’s high ratings, however. While viewer satisfaction with The Weather Channel may remain high, morale among many of its meteorologists is anything but, a topic that will be addressed later.
THE MAJOR LEAGUES
In 2008, The Weather Channel stepped into the major leagues. It was purchased by NBC Universal and two private equity firms, Blackstone Group and Bain Capital, for $3.5 billion. After several bidders dropped out, the consortium reportedly outbid the one remaining competitor, Time Warner, which owns CNN.
The buyers weren’t looking at just the television capabilities of The Weather Channel, but probably as much, if not more, at its “vertical branding.” That’s media-speak for its ability to reach not only TV viewers, but weather-sensitive audiences via cell phones, PDAs and the Internet. Weather.com®, for instance, is third only to New York Times Digital and Yahoo! News when it comes to news and information Websites. In September 2008, The Weather Channel’s Website had almost 38 million unique visitors, compared to the Times’ 47 million and Yahoo! News’ 41 million. Yahoo! News, by the way, gets its weather information from The Weather Channel
Overall, the sale was a great deal for The Weather Channel, in that it increased both exposure and resources for the Atlanta-based network. Executives there were absolutely ecstatic in October 2008 when a Weather Channel field reporter, Tetiana Anderson, first appeared on NBC Nightly News and the Today Show. Tetiana, based out of New York City, was covering an early-season snowstorm in the Northeast.
By the way, Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor, is reported to be a big Weather Channel fan. When Marshall Seese, the long-time and very popular co-host of “Your Weather Today,” retired in November 2008, Brian sent him a special video message that was aired on Marshall’s swan-song show. A classy act, I thought.
NBC boasts over 200 local television affiliates across the country in addition to a handful of owned-and-operated stations. That vastly increased The Weather Channel’s reach in terms of its ability to obtain live reports and breaking-news video of significant weather. With access to more satellite trucks, it also expanded the channel’s opportunity to deploy live crews–on-camera meteorologists and producers–to major weather events, such as blizzards and hurricanes.
For a network that thrives on dark and stormy weather, the sale of the erstwhile laughingstock of cable TV to NBC Universal Blackstone Bain was the sunrise of what promised to be a bright future.
Looking back, the first rays of light of that future cast a strange crimson flush across the heavens. Those at The Weather Channel should have paid more heed to what old mariners used to say, “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” A storm was brewing. It hit on November 19, 2008.
For a corporation that prides itself on predicting storms, it never saw that one coming. At least very far in the future. It was a “perfect storm” born of economic turmoil. The normally resilient channel was caught in a swirling confluence of a steep global recession, plunging ad revenues and dwindling viewership.
The result was Black Wednesday, a day on which about 80 people, ten percent of The Weather Channel’s staff, were axed from the payroll, including some who had been with the operation since its “Lewis and Clark” days.
It was a sad beginning to a new era. But like most storm victims, The Weather Channel will undoubtedly dig through the rubble, clean up and rebuild.
Though the carnage was transparent to most viewers, behind the scenes there was resolve to, as Dylan Thomas said, “…not go gentle into that good night.”
Next week, Part I of “The Surfer Dude and Stormmaster G–Two of the Best Reasons to Watch The Weather Channel.”
Photo: UW 16, USC 13 (Sept 19)–Erik Folk kicks the winning field goal. (Seattle Times photo)
The picture has absolutely nothing to do with the blog, it’s just that it’s been a long time since Husky football fans have had anything to gloat about.