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?'"
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.
Besides sections devoted to travel, golf and pets, the weather.com Web site also has interactive features like blogs and user-submitted videos, as well as information sections that give users tips like how to prepare for severe storms.
New developments -- like the scientific consensus on global warming and US President George W. Bush's proposal to set goals for cutting global emissions -- seem to have made the network's embrace of the topic less risky and more closely tied to its journalistic mission.
"I think the debate for most Americans has moved away from, `Is global warming happening?' to `What do I do?'" Zusmann said. "The viewers want what they always want; they want good television."
Rather than jeopardizing its relationships with potential advertisers, which include car and airline companies, the network's focus on global warming might make it more attractive, said Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director for national broadcasting at MindShare North America, an advertising agency owned by WPP.
"There might be some categories that shy away from global warming, but I don't think that would have an overall large impact," Maltby said.
The Weather Channel is owned by Landmark Communications, a privately held company controlled by the Batten family of Norfolk, Virginia, which also owns daily newspapers and other media properties.
Wilson said she is often asked whether, in the frenzy of media mergers, her network might be sold to a larger corporation.
"Every media conglomeration has approached Landmark, and there's never been a yes," she said, adding that after the "hard early years," Landmark has no plans to lose the channel.
"We actually think that we're stronger being independent," she said.
In one of its most significant investments, The Weather Channel celebrated its silver anniversary by breaking ground on a new US$50 million high-definition video studio adjacent to its current building. All programming will eventually be available in high-definition when the studio is fully operational, by October 2008.
The Weather Channel continues to cut deals with advertisers and media companies, like the online portals Yahoo and AOL.
Toyota sponsors a section of the weather.com Web site that gives tips on fishing conditions at various lakes, and WCBS, a local New York television affiliate, supplies The Weather Channel with local videos.
Under a partnership with BusinessWeek, The Weather Channel's First Outlook program offers a look at how the weather affects business.
The main weather.com Web site, established in 1995, regularly lands on Nielsen's list of top 10 to 15 sites, attracting 39 million unique monthly visitors in April, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
Of the channel's 800 employees, more than 200 work on the Web site; by contrast, the channel has only about 125 dedicated meteorologists.
Wilson acknowledged that ratings for The Weather Channel were down last year from 2005 -- she attributed the decline to the comedown after coverage of Hurricane Katrina -- but said revenues are "growing fairly robustly."
As other television channels and their advertisers struggle to retain viewers in the age of DVRs, The Weather Channel has largely remained immune. Last year, the channel entered into a partnership with Starcom, an agency that is part of the Publicis Groupe, guaranteeing minute-to-minute ratings; at this year's television upfronts, the network extended that guarantee to other advertisers and agencies.
Viewers, Wilson said, need to keep watching.
"It's perishable information," she said. "It's really TiVo-proof."
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