With the 30th anniversary of The Weather Channel fast approaching (May 2), I thought it might be fun to revisit some stuff I wrote several years ago, near the end of my 13-year stay at the channel. Herewith, the first of a three-part series looking back at the early days of the channel.
During the predawn hours of August 15, 1983, a U. S. Air Force Reserve WC-130 lifted off from Keesler AFB, Mississippi. The four-engined Hurricane Hunter aircraft climbed through stacks of towering cumulus and banked toward the Gulf of Mexico. Its navigator set the plane on a course just west of due south. It didn’t have far to go, just a few hundred miles at most. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Coral Gables, Florida, had spotted an area of disturbed weather in the gulf on satellite imagery and dispatched the Hurricane Hunters to investigate.
On the same date, in Atlanta, Georgia, John Coleman, president and founder of an upstart cable TV operation known as The Weather Channel, issued a terse memo to his employees. The opening lines of the memo read: “Goodbye. My option expires at 5 p.m. today. I am unable to obtain funding, so it will not be exercised.”
The memo, in essence, announced transfer of The Weather Channel to hospice care. Coleman, after an acrimonious falling out with Landmark Communications, Inc., of Norfolk, Virginia, the financial backers of The Weather Channel, had been given thirty days to find new investors. If he couldn’t, he had agreed to relinquish control of the operation to Landmark, which would shut it down. The fledgling weather operation was hemorrhaging cash, a million dollars per month, and Landmark could ill afford to support it any longer. It already had dumped $32 million into Coleman’s dream.
But it wasn’t just Coleman’s dream. It was also the dream of the late Frank Batten, Sr., chairman of the board and CEO of Landmark; and Dubby Wynne, Batten’s trusted Sancho Panza. To Batten, however, The Weather Channel was far more than a financial investment. It was an emotional one. In his book, The Weather Channel–The Improbable Rise of a Media Phenomenon, he wrote, “I had been fascinated by the weather ever since I was a child, after experiencing a damaging hurricane when staying in my uncle’s oceanfront cottage in Virginia Beach. The ferocious 1933 storm, eastern Virginia’s most damaging hurricane in recorded history, had sneaked up to our doorsteps unannounced.” (Note: the 1933 hurricane season was, with twenty-one tropical storms and hurricanes, the busiest on record until the awesome and destructive 2005 season. In 2005, hurricane forecasters had to dip into the Greek alphabet to keep labeling storms. There were twenty-seven in all, including the infamous Katrina.)
The 1983 hurricane season, ironically, wound up falling into the other end of the activity spectrum. Only four named storms would develop and the number of hurricane days, a mere five, would be the least since 1931. But on August 15, the day Coleman sounded the death knell for The Weather Channel, the Hurricane Hunters from Keesler found something that would eventually play a key role in the channel’s salvation.
LEWIS AND CLARK
Landmark Communications and John Coleman joined forces in 1981 and, like Lewis and Clark in 1804, set off on a great adventure into uncharted territory. The idea of a national cable TV channel devoted to nothing but weather was met with snickers and derision. In retrospect, The Weather Channel probably had less of a chance for success than Lewis and Clark did. There was no Sacajawea waiting to guide The Weather Channel explorers through the wilderness. Still, they launched with unbounded enthusiasm and optimism.
Coleman, working out of Chicago’s WLS-TV at the time, was the highly popular weatherman on ABC-TV’s national morning broadcast, Good Morning America. His showmanship, energy and rumbly James Earl Jones voice vaulted him to the top of his profession. He was respected by both the public and his professional peers. When it came to the idea of a round-the-clock weather channel, he was an “absolutely driven man” according to Batten. But Coleman wasn’t the only one. Batten admits that he, too, became obsessed with the concept of a weather channel.
Batten’s privately-held corporation–owner of newspapers, specialty publications and several television stations–bankrolled Coleman and The Weather Channel to the tune of $25 million. On May 2, 1982, The Weather Channel went on the air from suburban Atlanta. Coleman picked Atlanta as The Weather Channel’s home for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the city’s generally benign climate. Coleman admitted he’d never really adjusted to Chicago’s harsh weather. “I found it excruciatingly painful,” he said. “I’m very sensitive to heat and cold.”
But Atlanta was attractive for other reasons as well. It was a major transportation hub; it seemed on the verge of becoming a major center for cable TV operations (Ted Turner’s groundbreaking enterprises, including CNN, were headquartered there); it boasted a quality of life appealing to young professionals; and it possessed a reliable satellite uplink to ABC-TV, thus allowing Coleman to continue providing his weather segments to Good Morning America from the studios of Atlanta’s ABC affiliate, WSB-TV.
Despite the initial enthusiasm and optimism infusing The Weather Channel pioneers, they struggled from the outset. When broadcast operations commenced, there were more than twice as many people on the payroll than Coleman had projected. There were frequent communication system failures. And advertising revenue estimates were far off the mark. By early April 1983, it became obvious that a target of $7.4 million for that year was wildly optimistic; even $4 million appeared out of reach.
There were other problems, too. Coleman’s inexperience as a manager led to charges of favoritism and scapegoating. Under his autocratic leadership, staff morale imploded. Batten said, “The smell of death was in the air.” With Coleman’s failure to find new investors, Batten and Wynne were prepared to write off Landmark’s multimillion-dollar investment and scrap the fledging weather operation. The sooner, the better. At least financially.
Part II, next Friday.
-April 9. 2012-
Image: Headquarters of The Weather Channel on Windy Hill in Atlanta, Georgia.