Sunny forecast TV junkies cheer 20th birthday of Weather Channe

Saturday, May 11, 2002

ATLANTA -- They delight in watching the kinks in the jet stream. They follow wind-chill readings the way baseball fans keep track of batting averages. They know what "dew point" means.

The Weather Channel has made weather junkies out of some TV viewers.

"I can watch it for six to eight hours at a time, easy," says Andre Trotter, a 23-year-old computer engineer from Lexington Park, Md. "There are a trillion different ways things can happen. You can never get bored with the weather."

This month, the weather junkies' 24-hour cable TV fix celebrates 20 years on the air.

Since its first broadcast on May 2, 1982 -- when a forecaster welcomed viewers to "the non-ending weather telethon" -- The Weather Channel has spread to 85 million U.S. homes and earned a place in American pop culture.

Its Web site, among the 20 most popular in America, gets more than 350 million hits a month. From the channel's headquarters outside Atlanta, it beams forecasts to cell phones, pagers and handheld computers.

All of which makes obsessive fans of The Weather Channel -- people who just aren't satisfied with three minutes on the 6 o'clock news -- very happy.

"I guess it's the fact that it's so live, so now," says John Manga, a Michigan chef who watches for hours a day, negotiating with his wife for TV time. "Even at a young age, instead of watching MTV, I started watching The Weather Channel."

Available, but calm

Manga has filled out his music collection with artists whose instrumental tunes accompany the forecasts -- usually soothing jazz.

Forecasters at the network say its success lies partly in its availability. National Weather Service forecasts, tailored for hundreds of U.S. cities, are presented six times an hour.

But they also believe viewers rely on their calm, studied presentation of the weather, even in severe events like hurricanes and blizzards that send some local TV news anchors into hysterics.

"It's not about violence. It's not about sex. It's not about wars. It's not about the economy," says Dennis Smith, who has worked on-air at the network since its birth. "And yet it's something that could make an impact on their lives."

The Weather Channel celebrates its history in a one-hour special, airing first on Sunday night, and a companion book that rose quickly on the best-seller list when it was released several weeks ago.

The special counts down the top 10 meteorological events in the network's history. No. 1: Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992.

It contains footage of the moments that have come to define the cable channel -- meteorologists dispatched into the elements, battered by storm winds and smacked with sleet and snow.

Out of the woodwork

The network's on-air forecasters, many of whom have been at the channel all or most of the past 20 years, have become minor celebrities.

"When we pull into town, they come out of the woodwork," says forecaster Mike Seidel, an 11-year veteran. "They'll stand out in the wind and rain and snow. There's all these closet fans."

The junkies post their praise on Web sites, admiring their poncho-clad heroes for their bravery in vicious storms, for their impressive knowledge of geography, for their devotion to obscure weather history -- even for how they dress or how attractive they look.

Alta King, a weather-watching senior at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill., dreams of a job at the cable channel.

"I kind of grew up on it," she says. "My friends and family tease me all the time. They don't understand why I love it so much."

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