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Archive for Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Weather Channel basking in glory

August 1, 2001

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— Andy Dial admits it. He's a Weather Channel junkie.

He turns it on at first just to check on the local forecast, and then he can't turn it off.

Storm Watch. Travel Forecast. Tropical Update. They serve as the background music to his life.

"There are a couple of girls on there I'm in love with them," he said jokingly. "It's a deep relationship. They just don't know it."

Oh, yes they do. Fan mail arrives in large boxes at the Weather Channel's offices in Atlanta. E-mail clogs the computer system.

"Even in our earliest days, we got hundreds and hundreds of letters," said Kathy Lane, the network's public relations director.

Sometimes it's questions about how to become a meteorologist, sometimes questions about the music during the local weather updates. But most of the letters deal with the people who beam into viewers' homes daily.

"They really care about our on-camera people," Lane said. "They'll write and say, 'Where is so-and-so,' and that person just was gone on vacation."

Nobody suspected the cable network would develop such a following when Virginia-based Landmark Communications first put it on the air in 1982. Less than two years later, the network was losing money, and some backers were ready to pull the plug.

But Landmark stuck with it, and the network has grown in viewership from 9.4 million households in 1983 to 80 million in 2001. It turned a profit in 1985, and it turned heads in 1988 with coverage of Hurricane Gilbert, a Category 5 storm that hit the Mexican Yucatan and moved through Texas.

Nowadays, the Weather Channel is such an institution that hurricane evacuation experts give it credit for sparking the huge coastal evacuation ahead of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

When Weather Channel hurricane specialist Steve Lyon spoke with South Carolina emergency preparedness officials in March, he told them all of the office gossip Vivian Brown hadn't had her baby, Jim Cantore isn't really crazy, John Hope really is sharp as a tack well into his 80s.

Lyon said he has learned to get the personality update out of the way because otherwise nobody will ask questions about weather.

Dial, of Columbia, S.C., said he doesn't turn on the Weather Channel just for the weather. "I find myself watching it for amusement," he said. "It's company. It's comforting.

"I'm an old bachelor, and for me it's just contact with humanity."

After a while, he said, "I'm deeply concerned about thunderstorms in Nebraska."

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