Smooth jazz. Green screens. Jim Cantore’s hair was on his head instead of his face. (The beard works for him, though.) Weather all day, every day, without a hint of hype or those ridiculous storm names. It was a successful experiment that raised a generation of scientists and likely saved countless lives. Even people who don’t care about the weather admit that The Weather Channel of the 1990s was the height of television excellence.
The Weather Channel began in 1982 as the nerdy response to CNN. It was a novel idea at the time—in the days before smartphones or home internet, you had to wait hours for weather forecasts on the local news or in your newspaper. Overnight, this cable channel appeared on systems across the country and gave you all the weather you could want, whenever you wanted it.
The network began to thrive as the source for weather information in the United States. There was a long period of time when people didn’t check the weather, they checked The Weather Channel. They were the weather, as far as most people were concerned.
And then the internet happened.
You don’t need to be told that the way we watch television has undergone a rapid shift over the past couple of years. There isn’t a section of the television industry that hasn’t been touched by the breakneck deviation towards instant information and on-demand streaming, and the weather isn’t immune. If anything, television weather as a whole stands to take a harder hit than many other forms of programming. People are increasingly turning to websites and smartphone apps to check forecasts, and nobody knows that better than The Weather Channel.
Weather coverage has a very short shelf life. Last week’s weather report doesn’t do us much good today, and you can only milk ad revenue out of it for as long as it’s current. The solution, of course, is to start airing evergreen reality programming, or the type you can replay over and over for years to accumulate revenue on-air and online. The Weather Channel’s first wildly successful foray into reality programming was Storm Stories back in the early 2000s. The program featured real-life stories of survival amid some of the worst storms nature can produce. The show was great because it was unique, brief, and it fit right in with their format without being overbearing.
Fast forward ten years, and if you tune to the decades-old cable network at any random time during an average workday, you’ve got a six-in-ten chance of catching actual weather. Not too long ago, flipping on the Blue Behemoth was a crapshoot—am I going to see today’s weather or a show featuring grainy tornado footage shot by bros whooping and hollering as people die a mile in front of them? It’s gotten better since they ended their ugly, public feud with DirecTV and agreed to start playing more weather during the week, reducing by half their airing of shows like Scruffy Huffing Woodsfest and Rushing Cussing Truckers on weekdays, though they still show reality programming for about 17 hours a day on the weekend.
This unrelated programming pays the bills to allow them to do even better live coverage, at which they excel when they want and need to focus on their core mission. What their reality programming does prove, however, is that The Weather Channel of the 1990s stood above the rest because it showed a constant stream of consummate professionals absolutely killing it on live television. They didn’t have to worry about the ratings game or competition from a thousand other sources siphoning away the ad money that kept a growing ship afloat, so they had the luxury of airing all weather all day, and that’s what made it excellent and allowed their talent to shine through.
That coverage really was something else. As a little kid, I loved the weather maps and animated radar imagery, but as an adult it is simply astounding to watch YouTube videos of their on-air meteorologists informing viewers so flawlessly.
Take the above clip from April 27, 1991, the day after a deadly F5 tornado killed dozens of people in Andover, Kansas. Cheryl Lemke, who left the network in 2008 as part of a larger, ill-advised layoff of incredibly talented individuals, presents the weather better than I’m able to read to myself in my head. It’s jaw-dropping to listen to her impeccable broadcast, and the best thing is that it was always like this on the network in the 90s! Every forecaster was able to nail it with that friendly, authoritative precision that made The Weather Channel the place to go morning, noon, or night. Consistent delivery of such a strong, steady, straight presentation is hard to come by anywhere on live television today.
Even the local forecast became a legend in its own right. The local forecast, which became Local on the 8s in the mid-90s, was an even more novel idea than the network itself, providing viewers a detailed forecast for their town every ten minutes. The technology behind this omnipresent part of life is more complicated than you would think. Local cable company facilities have units of hardware called WeatherStar (now IntelliStar) that receives data from The Weather Channel, allowing the cable company to push out customized local forecasts to their subscribers depending on where they live. (That’s also why you get a generic, national feed if you have satellite.)
The local forecast is one of those things they’ve actually improved with time—the network switched away from the National Weather Service and began generating their own local forecasts around the turn of the century, and the graphics and narration receive positive upgrades every couple of years. One glaring exception is the awesome rotation of smooth jazz (and Christmas music) that used to accompany the forecasts; they did away with those about five or ten years ago—another ill-advised decision, but one that makes sense given that most of the two-minute slideshow is now narrated. The music was wildly popular, even inspiring a series of smooth jazz compilation CDs published under The Weather Channel’s brand.
(If you’re so inclined, there is a dedicated group of weather nerds that created a fully-functional WeatherStar 4000 emulator, allowing you to run The Weather Channel’s classic 90s local forecasts right on your computer. It’s awesome.)
A generation of meteorologists and weather enthusiasts grew up watching the professionals over at The Weather Channel giving the public reliable, straight weather information day and night, without dumbing it down or resorting to flashy graphics to replace word speak. Many of the meteorologists who were on the air in the 90s are still on the air today—Jim Cantore, Vivian Brown, Mike Seidel, Paul Goodloe, Dave Schwartz, and Nick Walker, to name a few—mixed with many newer faces who have joined the ranks over the past couple of years.
There were a couple of years there where the network appeared to struggle to keep its head in the clouds. The situation boiled over when DirecTV dropped The Weather Channel from its service and replaced it with a fledgling Denver-based network called WeatherNation. The latter is reminiscent of The Weather Channel back in the day—it has relatively low viewership, but its vast reach across the country through over-the-air channels (not to mention DirecTV) could theoretically pose a threat to the Blue Behemoth if they played their cards right.
The battle between the network and the satellite company ended after a long, tense couple of months, but not before it exposed cracks in the foundation of the channel that once seemed unshakable. The carriage wars continued further when Verizon FiOS dropped The Weather Channel earlier this year, replacing it with a new network from AccuWeather. Unlike the DirecTV debacle, Verizon has no interest in carrying The Weather Channel again, opting instead to stick with AccuWeather. (A questionable decision, to say the least.)
Even though the dispute with DirecTV was ultimately over money, the satellite provider artfully fought the issue in public as a fight to redeem the soul of The Weather Channel. It was a battle they needed to fight because it seemed to knock some sense into the network. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love The Weather Channel, even after all the criticism I lob at them over their recent editorial decisions, not the least of which is their ridiculous winter storm naming scheme. As hokey as it sounds, the criticism comes from a place of love and respect. I wouldn’t love the weather as much as I do today if it weren’t for The Weather Channel, and many, many people who grew up during the network’s existence would agree. The network is still accurate as ever, but the uncharacteristic, post-2005 lurch towards overly-simplistic presentations, flashy graphics, silly names, and that bill-paying, weather-adjacent evergreen programming, all tarnished the luster they developed in the 1990s.
Take the past two years as an example. If severe weather unfolds over the weekend, as it so often has of late, it almost seems like they want you to feel like they’re doing you a favor by preempting Cubs Eating Lichen with their live coverage. They have a history of running quick announcements along the lines of “we’ve preempted programming to bring you the weather.” Instead of The Weather Channel featuring Other Stuff, it feels more and more like they’ve become The Other Stuff, featuring Weather. They’re within shooting distance of that same line that The Learning Channel crossed when they ditched learning and signed Honey Boo Boo and that creepy family from Arkansas.
Of course, one doesn’t have to watch their television broadcast to get that feeling. Here’s a look at the top stories on weather dot com one day last month:
Now, compare that to this archived snapshot from October 3, 1999...
...and we’ll let that speak for itself.
To their credit, The Weather Channel is trying to get back to its roots. The network has made a noticeable effort over the past year or so to get down to the science and technical details of the weather, taking the extra minute to explain things to their viewers, not just telling them how it’ll be. The best example of this is their excellent Sunday morning talk show WxGeeks, which is way too short (running for less than 15 minutes when you factor in the Local on the 8s and commercials), but it does an incredible job highlighting and discussing both the achievements and flaws within the weather community. They also frequently run short explainers on how different weather events work, as well as every awesome feature in The Lab, including a holographic earth and other three-dimensional diagrams.
The Weather Channel of the 1990s was truly the high point of television history. It was the best of the best, and nobody can or probably ever will be able to top that level of professional excellence. Thankfully, it looks like they’re making the effort to return to their golden era after straying too far from their core mission. Let’s hope they’re successful, for everyone’s sake.