Originally created 05/13/02

Channel to celebrate 20 years on the air



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 "dewpoint" 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 May 2, 1982 - when a forecaster welcomed viewers to "the nonending 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 hand-held 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."

Mr. 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.

"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, first airing Sunday night, and a companion book that rose quickly on the Amazon.com 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.

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."