Here’s the third and final blog of a trio describing the early history of The Weather Channel whose 30th anniversary is just around the corner—-May 2.
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 Windy Hill—-apropos for a meteorological operation—- 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 its basement had 18-foot high ceilings, necessary during the 1970s to house the bulky computers of the era. For The Weather Channel, 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, Desert Storm, the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, or the Japanese earthquake/tsunami.
NO LONGER A LAUGHINGSTOCK
As The Weather Channel’s personnel matured, the “lawlessness,” as former on-camera meteorologist 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 in to over 100 million homes and businesses, second in the cable world to only TBS with 101 million subscribers.
The Weather Channel has become not only a media phenomenon, 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.
EPILOGUE—-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 (yes, the one that Mitt Romney used to head), for $3.5 billion.
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 the seventh-ranked news and information Website in the world. In June 2011, it boasted over 40 million unique visitors.
Overall, the sale was a great deal for The Weather Channel, in that it increased both exposure and resources for the Atlanta-based network. 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” (and now narrator for the audio version of Eyewall), retired in November 2008, Brian sent him a special video message that was aired on Marshall’s swan-song show. A classy move, I thought.
The transition to the big leagues did not occur without turmoil, however. On November 19, 2008, Black Wednesday to Weather Channel old timers, almost 80 people were axed from the company’s payroll. The carnage was the result of the steep global recession, plunging ad revenues and dwindling viewership.
Sometimes, radical surgery is necessary to save a patient.
But that’s in the past. The patient survived and is doing well. Happy anniversary, Weather Channel.
So now my attention turns to tornado chasing. My departure for the “great hunt” is April 27. I’ll keep you posted on my adventures (all in the interest of gathering authentic background for my novel-in-progress, Supercell) in this blog. Check it out once in a while.
IMAGE: GOES-7 visible image of Hurricane Hugo, Sep 21, 1989 (Univ. of Wisconsin)