Chilly reception changes to bright forecast for Weather Channel

February 15, 1993|By Elizabeth Kolbert | Elizabeth Kolbert,New York Times News Service

A cold front is bearing down on the Northeast like the 82nd Airborne on red alert. Unless something is done about it, it will be here by sunrise. But of course, nothing can be done about it. That is the tragedy, the pathos, the great ineluctable drama of our inconstant climate.

And that drama, in turn, is perhaps why we watch the Weather Channel.

For more than 10 years, the Weather Channel has been chronicling the vagaries of the jet stream, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, through rain and sleet and snow, heat and humidity and drought.

When the Atlanta-based channel started in 1982, many media analysts gave this narrowest of narrowcasting ventures just weeks to live. Now the cable channel, owned by a privately held media company, Landmark Communications, is carried by almost 90 percent of all cable systems and is available in more than 53 million households.

At any given moment, an average of 100,000 homes are tuned in -- and whenever Big Weather comes along, like the ferocious Northeast storm in December or Hurricane Andrew, the ratings soar.

Though the channel caters in large measure to people who tune in briefly to check the temperature, there are, remarkably enough, people who stick with the program the way one might stick with a soap opera or a sitcom. Market research conducted for the channel by the A. C. Nielsen Co. shows that one of five viewers who tune in stays 27 minutes or more -- enough time to hear the local weather report four times, as well as to catch the regional forecast, the national radar, the school day report, the business travel update and the forecast for Milan.

In part, it is possible to spend so much time with the Weather Channel because the flow is so various. The news may not vary much, but the graphics change with hectic abandon: In quick succession, the radar map in gray gives way to a precipitation map in yellow and green, a temperature map in blue and red and a winter-travel map shaded in white and pink.

Yet the surprising success of the channel with the over-27-minute crowd seems due to something more than the quick shuffle of video surfaces. All weather forecasts are a means of seeing into the future, and thereby, in some small measure, controlling it.

But what distinguishes the channel from traditional weather reporting is its truly tranquilizing effect. Because it is so repetitive, there's never any danger of missing something; the -- Weather Channel is always there in the background, superimposing an orderly story on events, like a "lite FM" soundtrack overlaid on life.

The sober-minded meteorologists of the Weather Channel seem to encourage this calm, measured approach. Their on-camera delivery is dry, stiff and deadly earnest: business, not show business. Apparently, for the kind of viewers who buy "The Enemy Wind," a video on tornadoes advertised during commercial breaks, no hype is required.

"Very cold if not frigid conditions for eastern Canada, feeding into a snow area now in Maine," came a typically staid -- and syntactically mangled -- report on a recent afternoon from a weatherman standing before a shaded map.

While other networks may foster colorful eccentricity in their weather people, the Weather Channel hires college-trained meteorologists, many with little or no broadcast experience, who sound as if they would not have much to say to Al Roker or Willard Scott. ("If you start throwing in a lot of personality, we won't get across a lot of information the viewers want to see," Mark Mancuso, one of the channel's meteorologists, explained.)

Using electronic pens and $20 million worth of computer equipment, the meteorologists -- 65 in all -- draw many of the channel's maps; they also make its predictions and deliver them on the air. The only thing they do not do is prepare local forecasts for the country's 750 weather zones -- there are eight separate zones in the New York metropolitan area alone -- which come from the National Weather Service via computer.

Reproducing the look of wire stories coming across a ticker, the local forecast appears on the Weather Channel as a screen full of text while upbeat, new-age-style jazz plays in the background. The prose is sparse and to the point. "Sunny but very cold. Tonight a few clouds, but not as cold as last night."

Michael Eckert, the Weather Channel's chief executive officer, says there are half a dozen "lifestyle groups" that account for the bulk of the channel's viewership, which has a median age of 40.

These groups include housewives, business travelers and outdoor laborers. Weekend athletes check the forecast to plan sporting events, and transplanted Northerners tune in to keep tabs on the miserable weather back home.

"People in the South like to see what the weather is like where they used to live," Mr. Eckert said.

The biggest time of the day for the channel is early morning, when viewers tuning in before work give it an average rating of half a point, or about 265,000 households.

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