People laugh when I tell them I’m transfixed by The Weather Channel — if they’ve heard of it at all. Twenty-four hours a day, the Atlanta-based cable network presents a seamless barrage of national and local forecasts, set to chipper New Age bluegrass and classical music. Sitting in the ”Forecast Center,” the Weather Channel’s anchors, who look like carpet salesmen from the local mall, spout comments like ”Rainy days and Mondays in Boston!” or ”Here comes that jet stream-wow!” Behind them are the network’s beguiling weather maps, a shimmering array of electronic colors. The commercials — for adjustable beds, windshield wipers, tree shredders — are comfortably folksy, and each hour goes down as easy as soft vanilla ice cream.
Yet this very banality makes The Weather Channel — which has been on the air since 1982 and reaches 50 million homes daily — more than television Muzak. For centuries, man has tried to tame the elements. With The Weather Channel, he has come as close as possible to doing just that. The network, owned by Norfolk, Va.-based Landmark Communications, may somberly report on, say, a 24- inch snowstorm in Michigan. But then on comes a jovial anchorman named Bill or Charlie standing in front of one of those glistening maps, gentle mandolins or pianos wafting around him, and you forget about the inclement conditions. The Weather Channel turns something utterly uncontrollable into a comforting presence in your home.
Meaning I’m not alone? ”There is a weather cult that watches us for hours,” insists Weather Channel CEO Michael Eckert, who says the network logs its highest ratings between 6 a.m. and noon. Viewership has jumped sharply during major storms, such as Hurricane Bob last August, when ratings more than tripled. ”Everybody’s into something,” Eckert says. ”People collect baseball cards or antiques, and many people are into the weather. It’s a fascinating dynamic.” For those of us who are both fascinated and in search of comfort, there’s The Weather Channel, a place where nothing — not even a raging tornado — can rain on our parade.