Kendall, Brent, The Washington Monthly
DON'T KNOCK THE WEATHER," the humorist Kin Hubbard once cautioned. "If it didn't change once in a while, nine out of 10 people couldn't start a conversation" For the past 20 years, The Weather Channel has provided plenty of material for these conversations, establishing itself as one of the country's foremost media brands in the process. But success wasn't preordained. It was produced by a fateful combination of business skill and serendipity, says Frank Batten, who, with Jeffrey L. Cruikshank, has just given us The Weather Channel. The Improbable Rise of a Media Phenomenon.
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 stuff built on meteorological credentials instead of good looks, and with pioneering technology that provided each cable system with locally tailored forecasts. …