Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Warming to the weather as a media darling

The Weather Channel is holding its line against predators as weather becomes more than a topic of idle conversation

By Maria Aspan  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ATLANTA, GEORGIA

For 25 years, they have been talking about the weather nonstop. At The Weather Channel, which has its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, that talk once amounted to a reliable humdrum of forecasts and storm coverage in the US and abroad. In addition to broadcasting weather reports, the channel has thrived by selling its utilitarian but appealing content to newspapers, radio stations and Web sites, and by developing specialty programs around everyone's favorite elevator-ride conversation topic.

"The weather is not controversial, but people are very engaged with it," network president Debora Wilson said in a recent interview.

The daily weather forecast is rarely controversial, but the broader topic of climate change has generated no end of debate. As the network has seen its primary subject turn into a hot-button issue, it has had to grapple with how it wants to address it -- and has decided not to tread gingerly.

The issue started influencing the network's coverage in a new way after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, and it has been shaping its programming decisions.

"If The Weather Channel isn't talking about climate change and global warming, who is?" said Kaye Zusmann, vice president for program strategy and development. "It's our mandate."

The network, which had been gearing up for the opening of hurricane season last Friday, sees the engagement with the issues surrounding climate change as important for content and for business.

"We have a point of view, and we think it's really important to articulate why it's happening. Secondarily, it's good business," Wilson said. "Many consumers want to know: `What should I do?'"

LIGHTNING ROD

The lightning rod for controversy, so to speak, is Heidi Cullen, the network's resident climate expert. In December, she raised the ire of Fox News and others by writing on her weather.com blog that the American Meteorological Society should not give its "seal of approval" to any meteorologist who "can't speak to the fundamental science of climate change" (there are now more than 1,700 comments on that one post).

Cullen, a tiny woman who speaks with conviction, said she believed that people are "finally seeing climate connected to weather," but that a lot of information still needs to be disseminated.

"If you turn on the local forecast, you wouldn't necessarily know that global warming exists," she said.

Far from being intimidated by the political backlash, Cullen and executives at the channel say they have embraced the issue of global warming.

Cullen is host of the weekly show Forecast Earth, formerly named The Climate Code, where she has entertained such guests as former vice president Al Gore. She also appears on the channel's other programming with segments on hybrid taxicabs in New York City and the development of more fuel-efficient aircraft.

The network's other programs have also directly engaged the elephant in the room -- or, in this case, the polar bear on the melting ice cap: A recent anniversary roundup of "The 100 Biggest Weather Moments" listed global warming as No. 1. And the network is training its meteorologists to discuss long-term trends as well as five-day forecasts.

"Weather information on an on-demand basis is the foundation of what we do, and a deeper experience on an emotional level brings us to life," Wilson said.

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