Not for Prophet

Gene Russo, Disco Daze, 1978 remixed by Imp Kerr

As it turns out, the Weather Channel has a regular audience of hardcore fans. And, among those people, the consensus is that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

As Sandy churned toward Atlantic City on Oct. 29, 2012, the Weather Channel was having a very good day. For a few hours in the early morning, TWC was the most-watched channel on cable: over 2 million people tuned in—more than CNN or Fox News—to track the whereabouts of the superstorm/frankenstorm/post-tropical nor’easter. The network, which is owned by NBC, took its good fortune in stride. In a press release the next day, TWC chairman and CEO David Kenny said, “People had an immediate need for information about Sandy. We were just happy they came to us for it.”

Weather events like Sandy might be the only times anyone has an “immediate need” for the Weather Channel these days, and even then, it’s a strong claim. Most people

And when I say, “Most people,” I mean the people who matter to media outlets, i.e., 25-54-year-olds with means to own a laptop and a smartphone and maybe some other type of smart device.
don’t think about the channel much at all, even as they’re using—TWC’s online arm—or its self-titled mobile app. My own impression of the channel was that it was a relic, rarely spotted except for on the offcolor, wall-mounted screens of retirement homes and Laundromats. But, as it turns out, TWC the channel has a regular audience of hardcore fans. And, among those people, the consensus is that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Take former TWC fan PitLoad413 (his Yahoo username):

What has happened to the Weather Weather Channel? Huh? Where the hell is it? Like an stereotypical 85-year-old man in his den, I would watch the forcasts and listen to the music for hours on end. Believe it or not I enjoyed seeing the temperatures change and ponder whether or not a snowstorm is coming our way...Now, we have our fellow Storm Trackers and Weather Geeks replaced by the snotty-voiced dumb broads with fake tits and metrosexual pretty boys with fake tans one would find on the otherwise less-sophisticated 24-hour news networks...Who thought that this would be a good idea to turn my Weather Channel into another dumb McNews channel?

PitLoad413 is apoplectic, and he’s not alone. TWC has become a “politically correct Anthropogenic Global Warming infotainment blizzard of chatty b.s. which has shouldered out the channel’s former comprehensive, useful, helpful hard weather data,” writes Jordynne L. And from Adam L., “I no longer watch TWC because they made all these annoying & aggravating changes. I wish it was like it was back in the early 80s.” And from an anonymous commenter: “I was 8 when I started watching, and I have tapes of the weather channel, and cry when I watch them.” What struck me first was the sense of personal betrayal in their tones. It spoke to a relationship much deeper than I thought was possible with a cable network whose most-watched program is called “Local on the 8s.”

I have no real evidence to support a claim that “Local on the 8s” is actually TWC’s most popular show (and, to be clear, it’s not a show so much as a recurring minute-to-two-minute-long local weather report, beamed to your TV by a Lucasfilm-era computer called a WeatherStar or its higher-tech offspring, IntelliStar.) But just about everyone I talked to about TWC outside members of The Base brought up “Local on the 8s,” albeit with all kinds of bastardizations of the name (“Weather on the 8s,” “Local on the 2s,” “8 Minute Forecast,” and so on.).

TWC has had its share of devotees since it began broadcasting in 1982. These people are what I came to think of as The Base. They have favorite OCMs (on-camera meteorologists) from decades past. They recall major weather events like 1988’s Hurricane Gilbert and the east coast Superstorm of ’93. They share video clips from TWC’s “Major Meltdown” of ’08, which happened for one night Jan. 21-22 and involved a power surge, followed by the local forecast playing on continuous loop. With fondness, they recall the late-’90s commercials featuring a fictional bar called The Front—where face-painted diehards watched TWC as if it were football—and the slogan “Weather Fans, You’re Not Alone.”

The Base loves to compare past TWC slogans, which have run the gamut in its thirty-year history, from the unsettling “We Take The Weather Seriously, But Not Ourselves” to the uncomfortably beseeching “You Need Us For Everything You Do.”
 They keep the channel on while they sleep. They are local meteorologists, storm chasers, armchair forecasters.

Among them, there’s a sizeable subset devoted to geeking out over the tech specs of the various generations of WeatherStar/IntelliStar systems, which receive and process forecast and weather information. The only competing subset, in terms of forum-posting frequency and general vim, is of TWC music aficionados, who log and share virtually every song played on the channel.

There are dissertations to be written about TWC music, which, to casual viewers, might be considered the single best exemplar of the elevator genre. Here are a few entry points: a) TWC’s label, The Weather Channel Music, has released close to a dozen compilations of “Local on the 8s” songs. b) The Weather Channel Presents: The Best of Smooth Jazz peaked at #1 on Billboard’s Top Contemporary Jazz charts. c) TWC caused a minor fracas among fans in 2007 when it started airing tracks with vocals. d) There is no artist more closely associated with TWC than Trammell Starks, who wrote 39 instrumental tracks for the channel in the mid-’90s (titles include “50 Below,” “After the Rain,” “The Blizzard Song,” and “Unpredictable”). The WeatherStar/IntelliStar system still defaults to an all-Starks playlist whenever anything goes wrong.
It’s mindboggling, really, how large and vocal these two subsets are, considering that both the WeatherStar/IntelliStar systems and the music are only ever used for “Local on the 8s” (See above note).

Most of The Base agrees that TWC’s heyday was in the mid-to-late ’90s. 1995 seemed to be a particularly stellar year. Two live shows, “Weatherscope” and “Exposures” debuted. “I would know everything about the nation’s weather and the forecast in a nutshell after watching one segment of ‘Weatherscope,’” writes TWC fan-site administrator phw115wvwx, who purports to be a 30-year-old man from Blacksburg VA. “And the ‘Exposures’ series taught me so much about the weather yet only aired once a week for 30 minutes,” he adds.

Fans generally agree that TWC declined steadily through the early aughts until 2008, when it took a nosedive off a cliff. 2008 was the year Landmark, TWC’s original parent company, sold the channel to NBC for $3.5 billion. A number of beloved OCMs were canned, “Weatherscope” and “Exposures” were dropped, and the slogan was changed to the universally-derided “The Weather Has Never Looked Better.”

Then TWC started showing weather-related movies like “Deep Blue Sea,” which is about mutant sharks and stars Samuel L. Jackson and LL Cool J. “Misery,” a Stephen King adaptation in which there is a snowstorm, is another TWC favorite. During one such screening, TWC didn’t cut to live coverage of a tornado, and the uproar from both fans and casual viewers was deafening.

The film on air on Apr. 30, 2010, when a tornado struck Scotland, Arkansas was called “Wind.” It stars Matthew Modine and Jennifer Grey and is about yachting.

TWC abandoned the films in 2010 and has now been moving further into what it calls “original programming”—or, as the The Base would have it, “weather-tainment,” “the National Enquirer for Weather,” and even “weather propaganda.” There are about 20 shows on TWC now that probably fall into this category. They’re all reality shows about people doing dangerous things in bad weather situations—on icebergs, during hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.—or about weather doing bad things to innocent people. One show is called “Weather Caught on Camera” and is basically an assemblage of YouTube clips filled in with eyewitness interviews and expert analysis.

The expert analysis often comes from TWC’s “severe weather” guru Dr. Greg Forbes. “Right on the beach it’s not very windy, the pine trees are not swaying at all, but now the birds are beginning to stir around...” It’s backed by a frenetic drumbeat and sound effects of shattering glass.
Another is called “Lifeguard!” and it is exactly what it sounds like. They are all low-budget and, for the most part, unwatchable.

Some of TWC’s decisions have admittedly been in poor taste. But are such changes to a commercial channel’s programming really all that unforeseen? TWC is doing what every normal media-outlet does, i.e., it’s trying to entice viewers.

For instance, The Times pointed out rather cheekily that all of TWC’s OCMs during Hurricane Sandy wore dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up and loosened ties, “presumably to make its coverage seem more intense.” Sure enough, the night Sandy made landfall, TWC had its third-highest viewership in history. It’s unclear whether the business-casual effect was a factor here.
 The problem is, TWC’s audience adamantly does not want to be enticed. “They sold the channel and now they’re desperate to ‘evolve’ when all they’re good at and all people want them to do is present the weather with some insight,” writes Facebook user csh1. “I am a weather guy, and I like watching the weather broadcasts,” writes a forum user named Trav. “Not storm stories, not cantore stories,
Trav is referring to Cantore Stories, a half-hour show during which meteorologist Jim Cantore travels to places with extreme weather that are also beautiful. It’s one of the more popular new TWC shows, and some of the episodes are definitely watchable and even kind of good.
 not impact tv, and all the other shows they have on there now.” “Just do your job with forecasting THE WEATHER. Reporting THE WEATHER,” writes Anonymous.

What I began to understand about The Base was that many of them are in denial about the Weather Channel being a commercial operation. They see it as a public service with a mission, and that mission, in their minds, has nothing to do with ratings. This perception is patently wrong, of course—this is, after all, cable television we’re talking about—but where does it come from?

The roots of our beliefs about weather forecasts—what they’re worth and who we trust to provide them—can be traced to magic, mysticism, and the supernatural. Predictions are essentially prophecies, and prophecies about the weather are as old as Genesis. Noah knew 100 years before the rains arrived, Moses gave a ten-plague forecast to Pharaoh, and Ezekiel predicted the kind of extreme weather the Weather Channel only wishes it could cover. Forecasting was an easier job back then; God did not beat around the bush. But it was also a sacred duty and a selfless act.

And perhaps it should be. The weather is perhaps the closest thing we have to a truly universal experience, not just because it’s the go-to subject for polite conversationalists worldwide. To risk sounding like a TWC promo, weather can be as powerful as an economic crisis and as deadly as disease or war. The only way to control it is to predict it, and we can’t even do that very well.

There’s also the question of quality. There are few professions in which being wrong is a daily if not hourly experience, but most weather forecasters are inaccurate the vast majority of the time. That’s because meteorology is a science based literally on chaos. The father of chaos theory was a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz whose breakthrough came while he was trying, unsuccessfully, to predict the weather with a computer model. He found that small variations in initial inputs (temperatures, wind speeds, barometric pressures) were leading to wildly divergent results. In other words, The Butterfly Effect.

So if weather forecasters are our modern-day prophets, they are also students of an imperfect science. In TWC’s case, they’re business-people too, and this creates all kinds of uncomfortable ethical problems. For instance, TWC has admitted that most commercial forecasters inflate the percentage-chance of rain because it’s better for business (people don’t notice if expected showers never come, but they get cranky if it rains when it isn’t “supposed to”). As Bruce Rose, former TWC VP, admitted in The New York Times, “If the forecast was objective, if it has zero bias in precipitation, we’d probably be in trouble.”

But TWC is already in trouble with its followers, and it has been for a while. The last straw for The Base came in early November when a Nor’easter trundled toward New York less than a week after Hurricane Sandy. TWC announced on its website that it would call the storm—and certain subsequent storms—by name, much like the system for naming hurricanes determined by a United Nations-affiliated group. TWC would call the first storm “Athena.” According to a press release, “a group of senior meteorologists” came up with an A-to-Z list of names, though it was more likely a crack legal team. R is for Rocky—“a single mountain in the Rockies,” Y is for Yogi—“people who do yoga,” and Q is for, uh, Q—“The Broadway express subway line in New York City.” Thousands of people reacted to the news on Facebook, TWC’s website, and other comment forums with varying levels of derision. “Name overload,” wrote one commenter. “These names for everything are way over the top,” wrote another. “Too big for your britches.” “Just cover the weather, don’t make up names for it.” “...a totally rogue action.” “I hope the NWS has the authority to force a stop to this disgusting behavior.”

For the uninitiated, NWS is the National Weather Service, a government agency under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that puts out its own forecasts on its website, weath- It does not have a TV channel, but if it did it would be the rational alternative for people fed up with the for-profit shenanigans of TWC (CSPAN for weather?).

The National Weather Service did, in fact, issue its own press release just hours later, forbidding its staff meteorologists from using the name in its “products,” i.e., its forecasts, warnings, alerts, etc.

TWC was unfazed. It cheerfully listed the reasons for its decision in a five-point plan that was actually a two-point plan with a few points rephrased, and concluded, “The question then begs to ask ‘Why aren’t winter storms named?’...It might even be fun and entertaining.” TWC’s indefatigable optimism is hardly surprising. After all, unflappability amid chaos is the channel’s modus operandi. Proverbial shit-storms sit squarely in its comfort zone.