The Weather Channel effect

The Weather Channel logo

The Weather Channel logo

When I was in middle school, a hurricane approached the North Carolina coast. The year was 1984. The Weather Channel was two years old, CNN was four. Both networks were covering the hurricane, Diana, with ’round the clock reports. Not only were there trained meteorologists in the studio but The Weather Channel had just as potent a team covering the storm in the field. For a weather geek like me, this was heaven via cable TV.

As the years progressed, the coverage evolved and so did my intelligence level when it came to hurricanes. By 1989 I was pretty sure I wanted to do something in the weather business though I was not sure as to exactly what that would be. This is the year Hugo smashed the South Carolina coastline. I’ll never forget the on-air schooling I felt I was getting just by watching John Hope, Rich Johnson, Jim Cantore, Mark Mancuso and others. It was like a free tropical meteorology course, just as long as my parents paid the cable bill. I was hooked. I was also not alone.

As it turns out, I know of countless other people, many of whom are in the weather business, who grew up with the same experiences as I did in regards to The Weather Channel. We each aspired in our own secret ways to become Jim Cantore or John Hope. In short, The Weather Channel inspired a generation of weather geeks. Why? Because it was the weather that was being reported on. Nothing more, nothing less. The weather, all by itself, provided the best drama on Earth. If there was even the chance that a hurricane would hit the U.S. coast or a major blizzard would strike the Northeast (and perhaps even more so, the Southeast) then The Weather Channel’s ratings would soar. People watched. It was on in hotel lobbys, bars, restaurants and in the homes of millions of Americans. Heck, The Weather Channel even made commercials about themselves and the phenomenon that they created. You remember – it was a spoof of a sports bar but instead it was a weather themed place called “The Front”. It captured the reality that most people are at least interested in the weather if not downright captivated by it.

Then, something happened. As with all things, change is inevitable. The Weather Channel became more of a news outlet, reporting on more and more content that was, perhaps, better left to CNN and other cable news outlets. Then came the global warming cause and with it, politics rained from the stormy skies. I began tuning out at about this time. It was not weather anymore but instead man-made drama which was far less exciting to me. I wanted to see Cantore reporting on a hurricane or a blizzard, not a climate scientist telling me how bad we humans are fouling things up. I don’t know when it happened, perhaps as the Internet really took off in the early to mid-2000s, but I began not watching The Weather Channel. It was as if someone took away my childhood memories. I know that sounds melodramatic, but the first 20 years had such an impact on me as to help shape my career. The changes that came as the next 20 began pushed me away. Once again, I was not alone.

As time marched on, long format programs began and had a shot of being relevant in my opinion. “Storm Stories” was at least about amazing weather-related stories featuring perhaps the best known storm chaser in all of history: Jim Cantore. That lead to more and more documentary type programming which further pushed me away. I turned to the Internet for nearly 100% of my weather info before The Weather Channel reached their 30th birthday.

I never openly criticized The Weather Channel for any of their choices for many reasons. Mainly, who am I? Just a guy with a fairly successful hurricane related website and business. I also have friends who work there. I just let it go and went about my business even in the face of such odd moves as naming winter storms. I could not believe my ears when I learned of this. I had not watched a single frame of The Weather Channel in so long that I hardly recognized it when I tuned in to see what this was all about. So many of the familiar faces were gone due to a variety of circumstances. It was like visiting a child hood town that was small, comforting and quaint growing up but had morphed in to something alien and unrecognizable.

Now we have come to the latest chapter in the venerable network’s book. DirecTV has decided, based upon customer input as part of that decision, to not carry The Weather Channel on their service. This hits home financially for The Weather Channel and the case was made by them that DirecTV’s pulling of their content could put Americans in peril during severe weather outbreaks. While I can see the value of having the talent of The Weather Channel at your beck and call when Ma Nature is about to hand out a whooping, I have serious concerns about people relying only on satellite based content for their severe weather information. Surely there must be some other source, more reliable than satellite, for severe weather information? There is. It’s called NOAA Weather Radio. You buy it once, program it, get batteries for back up, and you’re golden. I can assure you that NOAA Weather Radio does not fade out when it rains like cats and dogs. For The Weather Channel to believe that they are so important to Americans that their very survival may depend on whether or not DirecTV carries their signal is carrying it a little too far in my opinion. As I often hear on ESPN Radio with Mike and Mike when they have Chris Carter on, “C’mon Man!!!!”.

DirecTV received complaints about too much “non-weather” programming. The management changed the formula and it had resulted in people tuning out. It’s that simple, it has to be. The weather has not become any less exciting. Sure we go through periods of zero hurricanes or very few tornadoes. At the end of the day, the weather is causing some town, some where, plenty of grief and there’s plenty more coming. I say, stick to the basics.

Weather connects us in ways that few people ever truly grasp. In May of 1982 and for over 20 years, at least for me, The Weather Channel understood that concept. Weather can be a viable business but it has to be taken seriously. A return to what I believe most people truly want to see – weather – is the key to the long term success of The Weather Channel and any other enterprise trying to jump in to the weather business. Leave the politics, documentaries and silly winter storm names for vintage Saturday Night Live sketches.

M. Sudduth 3:00pm ET Jan 14

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