Watching the World End: A History of The Weather Channel


The television in my childhood home, when my parents were out of the house, was never not on. This was true even when I wasn’t cheating my allowance of what was then called TV time, true even when I wasn’t in the room. Unnerved by how quickly silence would fill the lulls of my playing, I would keep the television cranked to a conversational volume so as to imbue the house with a peopled ambience—an aural presence that was, if not comforting, innocuous. And in the 1990s, nothing was more reliably innocuous than The Weather Channel.

With its elevator saxophones, peacock-swirled Doppler radar maps, and anchors like the ever avuncular Dave Schwartz, who always greeted viewers with a warm “my friends,” The Weather Channel was a perfect surrogate of custodial blandness. Its passivity gave it a leg up over its closest competitor, the Food Network, which, though sufficiently anodyne, was pressured by all of the imperatives of its format: dice this, chop that, don’t start a grease fire and burn down the whole house. And unlike the entertainment featured on USA, MTV, or even Nickelodeon, the dramatic registers of which rose and fell with each program, The Weather Channel operated at a fixed register, hour to hour, day to day, its broadcast not only endless but seamless. It was functionally white noise. Unless, that is, there was a major storm. But even then, living in the meteorologically melancholic but rarely violent Pacific Northwest, I felt at a safe remove from the Gulf-battering vortexes to which the channel gave special coverage. Most days, The Weather Channel didn’t rise to the level of the weather; it didn’t merit small talk.

I recently channel-surfed my way onto this lineup of Weather Channel programming: Extreme Weather: The SurvivorsKatrina 2065Tornado 360Alaska: State of Emergency—as apocalyptic a four-hour block of television as you are likely to find outside of some of the more buried millenarianist channels. Like the once stately History Channel, now just one long Pawn Stars marathon, or the Food Network, whose descent into the carnivalesque is best epitomized by star Alton Brown’s own journey from hosting the scientifically informed Good Eats to refereeing the gimmick-a-minute Cutthroat Kitchen, the mild-mannered utility service of my childhood has set out to indulge the baser, cotton-candy impulses of our couch brains.

This was probably inevitable for a channel whose primary purpose was long ago obsolesced by the Internet, and that The Weather Channel has become a peddler of soft-core disaster porn like Top Ten Worst Hurricanes should surprise no one. (I watched this special as Hurricane Matthew barreled toward Haiti, the text crawl providing continuous updates on windspeed and pressure, knowing all along that the Galveston storm of 1900, in which as many as 12,000 people lost their lives, would be edged out by the more recent and more expensive Katrina.) More disconcerting has been the channel’s adoption of a Nostradamusian sensibility in its reportage, wherein every storm promises to wreak historic carnage. Many of The Weather Channel’s earliest supporters have decried its recent tacking. But this spiced-up programming and cry-wolf alarmism happens to be tracking the same trajectory as our changing climate. And like it or not, all this sensationalism has made The Weather Channel, inadvertently and ever increasingly, the essential television viewing experience of the Anthropocene.

The Weather Channel was not the first weather channel. When it debuted, in 1982, there were dozens of dedicated weather channels already on air. But these were regional productions, often automated and in all cases woefully unsophisticated, some nothing more than a fixed shot of an outdoor thermometer. (An idea that sounds ripe for resurrection by Norway’s slow television movement, which has featured, among other dramas, a 134-hour real-time telecast of a slow-chugging passenger ferry.) The Weather Channel, by contrast, had sophistication to spare. Modeled after Ted Turner’s recently launched Cable News Network, it boasted state-of-the-art weather maps, a cast of top-flight meteorologists, and, thanks to its distribution on satellite cablecast, the ability to deliver specially localized forecasts on top of its national coverage. (Hello, targeted advertising.) But The Weather Channel was more than just chyronized sleekness: with the backing and data of the National Weather Service, the channel had the import of a public service. Here was a dedicated venue for spotlighting dangerous storms, a place you could turn to at any moment to sap the weather of surprise. By the time The Weather Channel was keeping me company, in the late 90s, it was reaching seventy-five million homes, a fixture of airport terminal and retirement home television sets all across the country.

The idea of a national weather channel now strikes one as both obvious and quaint, but when I discovered that The Weather Channel was a thing, I thought the conceit a joke: how could an entire channel do around the clock what the nightly news managed in three minutes, tops? Moreover: who could possibly need that much weather? The constancy of my own Northwest climate—in summer, sun; otherwise rain—made the whole enterprise seem superfluous.

It was in my capacity as grandson that I first sat down with The Weather Channel. My dowager grandmother lived just down the block from my childhood home, and once or twice a week my mother would dispatch me to her apartment to check on her. Although my grandmother had fled the Stalinization of her Russia as a young woman, her flight did not prevent a golden-year ascension to full Siberian babushkahood. She kept her hair, a cloud of teased cotton balls that she curled with rollers nightly, tied beneath a floral-print kerchief, and observed a two-shawl minimum for going out. The heavy smells of kotletly and piroshki that permeated her apartment bespoke her matryoshka doll center of gravity. One of her three Bibles—Cyrillic, all—was always close at hand. Her name was Nadejda “Nadja” Burcikoff Gribionkin. To me: Bunia.

Age had potholed Bunia’s English too heavily with Russian to make for navigable conversation, so on my visits we mostly watched television together. And what we watched, mostly, was The Weather Channel. The Weather Channel was, like music—like the weather—universally graspable. And while Bunia would occasionally turn on Animal Planet—her funny bone was particularly susceptible to simian hijinks—she could never stay away too long from The Weather Channel. It wasn’t just the simplicity of the proceedings that made The Weather Channel such a staple of her television diet. Her fandom stemmed from the validation the channel provided her own, arthritic forecasts. Whenever the pictograph rain cloud that represented tomorrow’s weather inevitably appeared, she would give her knee a squeeze or gently rub her wrist and nod her approval at the television. After two or three cycles through the weather rounds, each time with the nod and the massage, she would wave me over, hold out a five-dollar bill for me to take, and send me home.

I was surprised to find that watching The Weather Channel was not the squirmfest of boredom I had expected, and not just because I was being paid to watch. While the channel’s original slogan, “We take the weather seriously, but not ourselves,” had long since been replaced by the time I was watching with Bunia, the signature mix of pocket-protector science and relentless dad-jokes that had inspired it was alive and well. The compulsive affability, passion, and rampant pun-making of its weathercasters made The Weather Channel not just informative but educational, and entertainingly so. Unlike their nightly news counterparts, slotted into a hurried caboose block, The Weather Channel meteorologists were free to nerd out at length. Their more granular forecasts drew from a lexicon alternately sleek and whimsical, full of jet streams and wintry mixes, pressure systems and polar vortexes. I would carry these words home from Bunia’s house, repeating them throughout the day, mantra-like, for the vibrato of their specialization on my tongue. And the more I watched, the more entrancing The Weather Channel became. Gradually, I came to see hosts like the square-shouldered Vivian Brown and soggy, wind-lashed Mike Seidel, possessed of a special literacy that allowed them to decode the future, as nothing less than magicians: an order of suited wizards working the Doppler crystal ball, dispensing my own personal meteorological fortune every ten minutes on the hour’s eights. (The very term weathercaster sounds like something straight out of Harry Potter.) Of course, they didn’t always get it right, but this fallibility—that it wasn’t automatic—only confirmed the magic. It wasn’t long before I began importing The Weather Channel into my own living room.

My enduring fascination with The Weather Channel owed much to the very specific form of couch tourism provided by its national ambit. Leaping from the Antarctic windchill of North Dakota to the Edenic monotony of Southern California, these travels across the weather map stirred, as the most watchable reality television always does, feelings of both pity and envy. This roving reportage helped color in my mind’s map of the country. Weather is a telling detail; you can glean a lot from the numeral and glyph hanging over a city: whether home means stucco or brick, basement or attic; or whether after-school is all about earmuffs and snowmen or sunscreen and sandcastles, shoveling the drive or mowing the lawn. (For me, home was mucking out the gutter in galoshes and a slicker—never an umbrella. Umbrellas, in Portland, attract a nasty side-eye stigma.) Mine was an America of climates and weather patterns.

More so than the satisfaction yielded by the joint pain–forecast synchronicity, it was this transportive coverage that was the deepest source of Bunia’s Weather Channel compulsion. With children all over the country—in California and New Mexico and Colorado and Washington, as well as the more climactically extreme regions of Oregon—the channel’s sweep provided an empty nester like Bunia not just fuel for vacation fantasies, but a portal through which to check in on the meteorological well-being of her far-flung flock. Even more than that, The Weather Channel was a way to vicariously experience, by one metric, what her grandchildren might be doing that day—a kind of social media before social media existed, right down to the emojis. For the lonely and the hermitic—for Bunia—The Weather Channel was destination viewing.

Bunia died in 2000. In what I continue to remind myself is a only a cosmic coincidence, that same year marked the beginning of end of the old Weather Channel.

The Weather Channel got in on the ground floor of the Internet, during the bubbling 90s, with (a marquee domain name if ever there was one). The website proved tremendously successful, but that success augured poorly for the long-term viability of its televised progenitor. So after the turn of the millennium, looking to ward off irrelevancy and retain net-bound viewers, The Weather Channel began dabbling in long-form programming, airing knockoffs of the kind of thing you used to find on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. Comprised of eye-witness accounts, found footage, and some of the worst digital recreations you’ve ever seen, these “natural dramas”—Storm Stories is an early example—featured tales of the most ferocious collisions between man and weather: the lucky survivors of swollen hurricanes, towns razed by super twisters, blizzards that left entire regions snowblind. Longtime fans balked. You didn’t turn on The Weather Channel to learn what the weather did, someplace, sometime; you tuned in for weather delivered in the future tense. But with the adulteration of the channel’s all-forecast formula, a door had been opened. By decade’s end, The Weather Channel, facing an ever-declining viewership, would be airing the film Deep Blue Sea—a 90s sci-fi thriller about genetically engineered super-intelligent sharks, which, being set on Earth, contains at least one depiction of weather, thereby presumably allowing it to fall within the channel’s domain.

But for The Weather Channel, the forecast—and, subsequently, the natural dramas, tenuously related films, and occasional reruns of American Supernatural—has always represented something of a holding pattern, a way to bide the time between infusions of the channel’s lifeblood—which is to say the unrelenting cataclysm of Mother Nature at her most peerlessly vicious. As you would expect, The Weather Channel reports severe weather with gusto. Storm chasers like self-described “human piñata” Reynolds Wolf do their best to outshout the wind to provide ground-zero coverage of the tempest and all that it wreaks. It’s a queasy business model: as property damage goes up and the death toll rises, so too do the channel’s ratings. NBC Universal, which acquired The Weather Channel in 2008, has done its best to exploit this correlation between ratings and human devastation. Under its regime, there is no calm before the storm. The channel’s reportage colors each tropical depression brewing in the Caribbean—the opening act, if not the mic check, to the stateside headliner—with the potential to be the next Katrina, while every nor’easter worthy of the name, and many that are not, threatens a return to the Ice Age. (Tropical depression: this sounds like a diagnosis for the particular kind of ennui known to afflict tourists at white-sand resorts.)

In 2012, The Weather Channel took it upon itself to begin naming winter storms, purportedly to help generate awareness. That first winter they identified twenty-seven storms that merited the coronation of onomastic significance. Many of the names were pulled from the Greek and Roman pantheons—Athena, Saturn—but the naming convention isn’t so standardized that we weren’t warned that year of Winter Storms Rocky and Yogi. For its part, The National Weather Service, which ceased supplying meteorological data to The Weather Channel in 2002, has disavowed The Weather Channel’s nomenclature, which is widely considered to be a shameless attempt to commodify these storms through proprietary SEO branding and—just a pinch—good old fashioned fear-mongering.

Still, the playfulness of old sometimes resurfaces, if not to dissonant effect. In 2012, as Mike Bettes and Carl Parker, safe and sound in The Weather Channel studio, were rhapsodizing the fury of Hurricane Isaac, the camera cut to their boots-on-the-ground man in New Orleans, Jim Cantore. The former host of Storm Stories and a longtime member of The Weather Channel team—one of the few to survive NBCU’s housecleaning—Cantore has a Navy SEAL physique that belies his camp-counselor enthusiasm for all things weather. There on Canal Street, the camera had caught Cantore, decked out in safety glasses, Isaac leaning hard on the palm trees around him, pumping out pushups in the puddle-reflected strobe of a police cruiser’s lights. (You can find a clip of this on YouTube, where one commenter describes Cantore as “fucking diesel.”) Following a round of high-fives between Cantore and his crew, Bettes, having broken off mid sentence at the sight of Cantore’s antics, chuckled, granting, “You know, it doesn’t hurt to have a little levity.”

The Weather Channel’s own forecast looks grim. The steady evaporation of its value and viewership led the channel, in 2015, to sell off many of its assets, including, while production of its original programming was halted this past year. Even a proposed return to a forecast-focused lineup and more measured reporting is not likely to save the brand. Nor would such a reversion lower The Weather Channel’s register into the lullaby ranges it occupied when its muzak was backgrounding my childhood.

During my period of Weather Channel obsession, a local drive-time radio show called The Mark and Dave Show held a contest for callers to respond to the prompt, “What would you turn off, if you could?” I listened with my father as the middle-age audience phoned in all the expected entries: children growing up, taxes, yakking spouses (a particularly popular entry). But there was one answer that I thought conspicuously absent: wasn’t anyone else tired of all the wet? It was springtime, which meant we were in something like month seven of Portland’s Long Rain. I thought I had an obvious winner. I asked my father if I could call.

When Mark asked me on-air what I wanted to flip the off-switch on, I answered, “The weather.” Dave ribbed me, pointing out that clement weather is still weather, but my meaning was implicit, and the pair were amused enough by my precocious frustration with the rain (“You itching to get out there and shoot some hoops?”) to award me the hour’s prize, a pair of tickets to a sports museum. I have since wondered if I would have won had I gone with another briefly considered answer: the Monica Lewinsky scandal, then ongoing and seemingly omnipresent. My father suggested that the hosts would sniff parental coaching in that answer, and so, following his coaching, I went with that unimpeachable small-talk gripe.

I don’t think my answer would play out so innocuously were that same contest held today, because the desire to turn off the weather would no longer implicitly be about any current inclement conditions. In our era of Senate-floor snowball fights, in which even the most trivial comment about the weather—“Today’s a scorcher”—comes loaded with political subtext, turning off the weather sounds like an answer fed by a hovering parent, and every bit as controversial as presidential impeachment. Twenty years and an inconvenient truth later, weather is no longer small talk.

Small talk, of course, is defined by context. We’re up to our necks—and, unfortunately, sometimes deeper than that—in context. Hurricane Harvey, the first Category 4 storm to make landfall in the United States since 2004, left Houston looking like an outtake from The Day After Tomorrow. And it was only by the stratospheric height of the bar set by Hurricane Irma’s island-hopping campaign of Caribbean erasure that the mayor of Miami Beach could say of the storm, which left 75 percent of Florida without power, “We didn’t dodge a bullet, we dodged a cannonball.” Like Harvey, Irma was also posting Category 4 winds when it made landfall. The last time two Category 4 storms struck the United States in the same year was never. It’s never happened before. Meanwhile, the West burns. Montana is aflame. It rained ash in Portland. Hundreds of blazes have turned a Rhode Island-sized swath of British Columbia forest to charcoal. Los Angeles, no stranger to air pollution, spent a week choking on the smoke of the largest fire to ever spark within its city limits. It feels almost gratuitous to note that multiple stretches of triple-digit heat made August the hottest month ever recorded in the Pacific Northwest, where historically temperate summers, now a fast-fading memory, mean only roughly one in two homes is air conditioned.

With summer 2017’s climatic lashing, you could be forgiven for forgetting entirely the historic highs of last year: How, topping the previous high set in 2015, which topped the previous high set in 2014, 2016 became the hottest year on record. How 2016 was also, in the United States, the most waterlogged, with more floods than any year since insurance companies started counting. And how the flames of last year’s fire season, charring a West gone brittle with drought, made a strong bid for the record book. This year’s season may just burn the book up all together.

As the weather continues to outdo itself year over year, as the concept of seasonable weather blurs at the edges, as our natural disasters become less natural and more disastrous, the context of climate change has become inescapable. We are everywhere engulfed by it. The weather woes we face are not an anomaly. They’re reality.

In an ironic twist, the science of climate change has returned us to the Noachian meteorology of cause and effect: we’ve sown the wind and now we’re reaping the whirlwind, literally. Our earliest tales of weather carried this paradigm to its Judgment Day endpoint. Now, with half the globe prey to an Atlantean fate, and the other half facing desertification, this mythology is beginning to look a lot like prophecy.

If you want a preview of what’s coming, turn The Weather Channel back on. Because while the channel’s Category-5 doomsaying may make for irresponsible journalism, climate change has made it prescient. Even as more storms are melodramatically suffixed with armageddon and apocalypse, the bluster is fast losing ground to the actual ferocity of our climate change–inflected weather. And in bombarding us with the greatest hits of history’s most sensational and devastating weather phenomena—all the dramatizations of monsoons and mudslides and hail fusillades, the tornado swarmed, the lightning struck, the flash flooded—The Weather Channel has given us a harrowing window into the future rushing toward us. As we cash in the atmospheric returns on our carbon investment and the calamitous meteorological one-offs of the past become increasingly commonplace, a special about the freak destruction of Galveston is weather in the imminent tense. It’s a forecast that The Weather Channel has been acclimating us to for years.

People make small talk about weather for a reason: weather is communal. It’s a shared experience. It’s elemental to our comfort, and thus an easy source of connection and commiseration. That we’ve made it our collective fate is fitting. Of course, now, that throwaway joke you crack in the grocery store checkout line about sidewalk-fried eggs or frostbitten brass monkeys—that’s no longer small talk. That’s gallows humor.


Feature image via Creative Commons.

Justin Erickson is a writer of nonfiction things. He is currently on existential layover in Saint Louis. His infrequent tweets can be read @erickson_jm. More from this author →