» Wind, Rain, Sleet, or Snow
Wind, Rain, Sleet, or Snow
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March 1, 1999
I am about to enter one of the only places on earth where blizzards, lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and heat waves rage twenty-four hours a day. But what does one wear to a place like that? After a fair amount of pondering, I decide to blow off the goggles, waterproof GoreTex parka, and rubber boots and go with a brown jacket and khaki slacks.
The pilgrimage I am making is to a spot where torrential rains and gale-force winds are favored over sunny skies and calm seas any day. Of course, you have to be something of a weather nut to see this generic high-rise, in an office park on the northern fringes of Atlanta, as consecrated ground. But that’s what it looks like to me, knowing that beyond those glass doors is the headquarters of The Weather Channel, the cable TV empire built on the simple premise of broadcasting weather around the clock. And, over the course of a severe drought, a tropical storm, a flash flood, and all things El Ni–o, my favorite channel.
My great expectations admittedly lead to a letdown. The weather inside The Weather Channel is, of all things, climate-controlled. And its operations, spread out over six of the building’s eight floors, look pretty much like the offices of any other modern corporation. But my disappointment is short-lived, as I am soon escorted to the 8,500-square-foot studio and forecast center the proverbial eye of the storm. There, behind a huge brass globe, sits the very set I’ve viewed from the comfort of my armchair, and countless hotel rooms.
The stage strikes me as much smaller than it appears on TV, diminished by clusters of desks equipped with all sorts of computers. Which is only fitting, because it’s at those desks that the meteorologists compile and analyze data for the official TWC forecasts and prognostications. And therein lies The Weather Channel’s secret: Unlike other cable channels, it gets its programming from real scientists, with promos provided by Mother Nature herself, free of charge.
Two of TWC’s “programmers,” and part of its eighty-person staff of meteorologists, are Dave Houtz and Chris Samsury. Both belong to different teams that coordinate forecasts with the aid of a half-dozen computer models and various “products” from the National Weather Service, including balloon soundings, pressure readings, and satellite imagery. There are intangibles such as Tom Moore to factor in, too, explains Houtz, who predicts the amount of rain and snow due across the United States in the next twelve hours. “Tom grew up near Lake Erie, which gives him a real advantage in forecasting lake-effect storms,” says Houtz. “He knows the differences in water and air temperature that trigger major snow events, all the variables that computers aren’t always able to process.”
Samsury’s team focuses on quality control, monitoring the local forecasts carried by each of the 9,000 cable systems to ensure accuracy. It also provides immediate backup to those systems in case of lightning strikes, hurricanes, or other emergencies, which tend to occur wouldn’t you know it? during severe storms when updated weather is needed most. Tom Moore acts as liaison between the fifty-plus behind-the-scenes meteorologists and the twenty-six OCMs, or on-camera meteorologists, who participate in twice-daily weather briefings. The talent tends to improvise what they’re going to say, focusing on two or three basic themes and running down the necessary stats.
This same information is also utilized by the on-air voices of the radio version of The Weather Channel, which services more than 200 U.S. stations from a bank of booths around the corner, and by a separate staff in a studio down the hail, beneath a row of clocks marking la hora local in San Juan, Mexico City, S‹o Paulo, Lima, Santiago, and Buenos Aires. This is The Weather Channel Latin America, two years old and two million households strong, broadcasting in Spanish and Portuguese all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Upstairs, this vast data is being filtered onto www.weather.com, one of the ten most-visited Internet sites in the world.
Science, and the orderly process applied to an unorderly discipline, still doesn’t fully explain the quiet, workmanlike atmosphere and dearth of raised voices, ringing alarms, and flashing radars at TWC. But, then, it happens to be the weather equivalent of a slow news day: fair and unseasonably mild over most of the United States, with nothing much to report other than some showers in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s sort of benign,” shrugs Dave Houtz, an assessment reflected in the empty row of chairs on standby in case of severe storms and in the impassive faces of the technicians illuminated by a bank of monitors in Master Control. If violent weather was breaking out, the crew would be scrambling to roll out the live boxes, page turns, slab moves, and other video effects.
At least the pace never slacks for the afternoon OCMs, who work two ninety-minute on-camera shifts a day. While they don’t necessarily carry as much weight as the full-time meteorologists in calling a forecast, their task is no less complex, having to point at a blue screen, clicker in hand to call up the desired graphic, while watching themselves on a monitor, making sure they’re pointing to the right places, and glancing at the flashing lights counting down to the next station break.
It’s clear the folks at TWC love their work, because when they’re not actually doing the weather, they’re talking about it. Take Bill Keneely, a familiar face from the on-the-scene coverage of last year’s Hurricanes Bonnie, Hermine, Georges, and Earl. The occupational hazards of going on location are bad enough, he says, telling tales of killer debris and shocks from microphones (“You get pretty good amperage running through you”), but the small details can be a headache, too. Like local pronunciations. “As you go west, a lot of 0 sounds turn into I sounds,” he says. Seattle and Boston are particularly tricky, the former for its Native American names, the latter for its peculiar Yankee bent.
“Texas might be the toughest state,” says Keneely. “How do you say M-E-X-I-A?”
“Muh-hay-yuh,” I tell him.
Jill Brown wanders over to us during a break from her broadcast. Another of the more recognizable on-air faces, Brown achieved notoriety for doing forty-five minutes in the eye of Hurricane Fran back in 1996. “The best I ever did was the eye wall,” Keneely sighs.
Jim Cantore pops into Brown’s cubicle. Cantore’s the gonzo extremist, the cowboy 0CM always volunteering to cover the nastiest weather events. “The worst ones for me are the ones that don’t amount to much,” he says excitedly. Most haven’t disappointed. Some even surprise, like the second landfall of Hurricane Andrew on Baton Rouge in 1992. “We went to bed thinking it would wash through. I woke up when the air conditioner in my motel room blew in.”
Over in another cubicle, Mike Bono and Dennis Smith, two other OCMs, are talking with John Hope, TWC’s dean of hurricanes. Hope pauses to explain the appeal of his specialty. “Hurricanes are long-range phenomena that develop slowly,” he says, rating 1998 as an exceptional year. “We had thirteen hurricanes, and the average is nine. There were seven landfalling hurricanes. That’s the first time that’s happened this century.”
Hurricanes aren’t the only ratings booster. “Blizzards are just as popular,” says Hope, citing the big blast of 1996. “That was in the Northeast, where the largest concentrations of people are. It’s not the same when one blows through Utah.”
Ratings points during severe weather weren’t on the mind of John Coleman, the legendary Chicago weathercaster, when he thought up The Weather Channel almost twenty years ago. All he wanted was more than the one minute he was allotted to cover the entire country coast to coast during his daily appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a station that focused on weather without those time constraints? Coleman’s idea synced neatly with the advent of cable television all those new channels begging for programming and he found a willing partner in Landmark Communications, a Virginia-based media company.
“I was turned on by how cable was going to revolutionize how consumers would receive information,” admits Michael J. Eckert, who began at TWC on Day One as a sales manager and is now its CEO. But it wasn’t what Eckert or Coleman or Landmark thought as much as what viewers thought.
“We’ve learned some fascinating things,” says Eckert. “That consumers utilize weather information in different ways depending on the time of the day, week, month, season, and year. That business travelers look for certain information Sunday through Thursday. That consumers were ready for information on demand, which they weren’t getting elsewhere. The icing on the cake was that all these different segments had a common need local weather.”
The key to TWC’s success was a new technology called Weather Star (short for Satellite Transponder Addressable Receiver), a device that pulls data from a satellite and sorts out the information specifically intended for that receiver. That reality makes possible forecasts custom-made for each particular cable system, an edge that continues to separate The Weather Channel from its competitors.
Still, when it debuted in May of 1982, The Weather Channel was hardly a sure thing. The typical reaction was that it was a shining example of cable’s overreach. (What’s next, The Time Channel?) But within three years, TWC was turning a profit, an amazing feat for in untried programming concept. Today, TWC reaches more than seventy million households.
“It’s not the most glamorous of subjects,” Eckert admits. “It’s not music, were not sports, were not news or movies. But we do have an audience that is passionate about it.” I nodded in agreement and ;hook his hand. “See you on the 8’s,” I told him, referring to the time segment when The Weather Channel airs local forecasts. He nodded back, knowing exactly what I was talking about.