- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

ATLANTA - Hurricane season has battered Florida, but it has been more than kind to the Weather Channel, which post-ed its biggest ratings month in history for September.

They are slow to brag about it at the Atlanta-based cable network, and hurricanes, they say, are nothing to celebrate. But when ratings fluctuate greatly depending on the weather, there is no question that five major storms in six weeks means a sunny payoff for the Weather Channel.

“This was a history-making event from a weather perspective, and for the Weather Channel it was a record-breaking ratings season,” said General Manager Terry Connelly.

The network posted a single-day record, reaching 1.9 million households the day before Hurricane Ivan made landfall. The next day, as Ivan roared ashore, the Weather Channel beat all other news channels, including CNN and Fox News.

The network also posted a weekly ratings record from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5, when Hurricane Frances hit Florida’s east coast. For the third quarter, July through September, the Weather Channel’s ratings were 43 percent higher than in 2003.

The news gets even better when accounting for the network’s “weather trigger” advertising structure. Executives won’t give details about how much ads cost when a hurricane hits, but they say companies can set up ads that air when a certain weather event happens. A home improvement store’s ads could be triggered by a hurricane, or a tire company’s commercials by a snowstorm.

“It was the biggest month in the history of the network,” Mr. Connelly said.

But it was hard-earned. Just ask any meteorologist who worked 24 hours straight to forecast a storm’s path, or a field crew who spent much of August and September thinking they would never see a dry sock again.

“I’ve been doing this a dozen years, but I’ve never lived through anything like this,” said Jim Cantore, an on-air meteorologist who spent almost six weeks wind-whipped and soaked.

For a while, it seemed that any time a viewer flipped to the Weather Channel, Mr. Cantore was there, day and night, showing crushing waves and palm trees straining against intense winds. He went days without sleeping, even before the storms hit.

“I could never sleep. It’s kind of like the night before the Super Bowl. Because this is our little Super Bowl, weather like this. You know you’ve got to go out there. You know you’ve got to perform.”

Once the storm rolls in, it’s constant work until skies clear, even if it takes days.

“We’re not like a network where we do a couple shots and go in. It’s a constant physical beating,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic, standing there on a beach and telling everyone to leave the beach, saying no one should be on this beach.”

The field crews rely on constant feeds from headquarters to tell them how close they can get to the hurricane without facing personal danger. It’s not an exact science.

Meteorologist Stephanie Abrams learned it the hard way while covering Hurricane Frances. While she talked on camera, some aluminum roofing ripped free and flew toward her. She got out of the way just in time.

“We position ourselves so we’re not going to get hurt, but it still gets bad,” she said. “You can go into school and look at the textbook, but you go out there and it’s a totally different experience.”

Even after the eye of the storm passes, the hardships don’t end. Cameras have to be fixed, sometimes replaced. Restaurants are closed, so crews eat soggy granola bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for days. Those fancy Gore-Tex coats they wear? Forget it. Crew members say nothing keeps you dry standing in a hurricane.

Back in Atlanta, the accommodations are better but the work just as taxing. No one gets to take vacation during hurricane season, and this year many of the network’s employees worked all-nighters, living off coffee and Krispy Kremes for days.

Steve Lyons, the network’s tropical weather specialist, had one day off in four weeks. Sometimes he napped under his desk. Once he remembers looking at his watch in the windowless studio and having to ask whether the time was a.m. or p.m. Then he had to ask what day it was.

“It was just one system after another. We didn’t get any kind of a breather,” he said. “After a while you start running on adrenaline. The past is a blur and you’re just looking ahead to the next system.”

They also worry that their predictions may be flawed. Mr. Lyons and others craft their predictions from satellite images and wind readings at sea, and they know viewers and even other reporters rely on them to tell where the storm will run aground, and at what force.

“You’re constantly worried about being incorrect,” Mr. Lyons said. “Nobody cares about the long hours. We just want to do things right and not let anyone say anything incorrect.”

Now that hurricane season is winding down, the storm teams get a rest, but not a long one. Already snowstorms are making news out West.

“Oh, being in a blizzard is brutal, I’m not going to lie about it,” Mr. Cantore says. “In a hurricane, I can stay outside, hang out in a corner. In a blizzard, you can’t stay outside.

“You’ll go out in the cold, and they tell you, ‘We’ll be with you in five minutes.’ And I’m like, ‘Five minutes — my lips won’t be moving in five minutes.’ So that’s what’s next. On to the next system.”

It’s always changing. Kind of like … the weather.

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