Weather Vain

When Batten, the now-retired chairman of Landmark Communications, announced his company’s plan for a 24-hour weather network in 1981, the media and business communities responded with a collective snicker. Though cable was still in its infancy, stations like CNN, ESPN, and MTV were raising expectations. A weather channel, on the other hand, hardly seemed like the next big thing. But while much-hyped cable ventures like CBS’s arts-and-culture network came and went, The Weather Channel figured into the daily routine of more and more viewers. Today, it has achieved almost complete cable-market saturation, reaching 85 million households that tune in for its pitch-perfect blend of reality TV and news you can use.

In 1978, “Good Morning America” weatherman John Coleman spent his nights preparing his morning forecasts and his days plotting his dream venture, an all-weather channel to supplant the anemic TV news coverage, which he considered grossly inadequate given the effect weather has on people’s lives. Eventually, Landmark signed on. The company’s cable systems already carried a rudimentary weather channel, nothing more than the scrolling text of the day’s forecast and a still shot of wind and temperature dials. Though it provided about as much action as fish swimming in a bowl, people seemed to be tuning in, as evidenced by the many customer complaints Landmark received when the station experienced technical problems. Batten’s instincts convinced him that viewers would be intensely loyal to the channel and would value its weather reports as a public service.

The Weather Channel debuted in May 1982, with a staff built on meteorological credentials instead of good looks, and with pioneering technology that provided each cable system with locally tailored forecasts. But the relationship between Coleman and Landmark soured quickly in the face of larger-than-projected losses and, in Batten’s view, declining staff morale. The two parted ways just over a year later, but not before airing their dirty laundry in court, Coleman departing the venture entirely.

Perversely, the court battle helped The Weather Channel by publicizing its financial problems. Landmark’s original business plan was a precursor of the basic Internet model–give away content and make money through advertising. Only the major networks were able to charge cable operators for their broadcasts. But those operators feared losing their niche weather programming and indicated a willingness to pay for it. Revenue stabilized, the cable industry boomed, and The Weather Channel finally broke even in 1986.

Batten surely enjoyed The Weather Channel’s improbable rise, but he doesn’t let the reader in on the fun. The narrative jumps from the problem-plagued early years straight to the current halcyon days, with hardly a mention of such Weather Channel celebs as Jim Cantore–the Kerouac of weathermen–who, traveling with the station’s mobile “Storm Tracker,” never met a hurricane he couldn’t cover. Then there’s the depressing Coleman, who casts a shadow over much of the book–a dreamer, says Batten, who “had written a part for himself that, sadly, he proved unable to play.” (Coleman currently works for KUSI-TV in San Diego and recently dismissed The Weather Channel as self-serving and revisionist. Weather fanatics anticipate his scathing tell-all.)

Readers are left to ponder Batten’s loftiest claim: that The Weather Channel has fostered “an enormous surge of interest in the weather.” While it’s probably true that your average weather-watcher couldn’t speak knowingly of El Nio 20 years ago, people have marveled at Mother Nature’s wonders since time immemorial. Weather remains beyond our control. And despite The Weather Channel’s climb to the top of the cable world, with its snazzy seven-day forecasts, its subject remains largely beyond our prediction.