For weeks now, the network has broadcast live nonstop, first as Hurricane Harvey inundated Texas, and now as Irma menaces Florida. Roughly 70 reporters and producers are in the field, and many employees have all but moved into company headquarters.
“They’re the only broadcast entity that’s covering a Harvey or an Irma 24/7,” said J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia. “On quiet days, it’s tough for them, but they are tailor made for times like this.”
Ratings bear this out. The Weather Channel averaged nearly 1.3 million viewers during prime time over the first half of last week, up sharply from an average of 150,000 viewers during the last week of July, when the weather wasn’t a story, according to Nielsen.
Since the last week of August, reporters and producers have worked extended shifts. Employees from the human resources department have volunteered to help monitor social media. And all around the headquarters, there are signs that the Weather Channel has kicked into high gear.
As Ms. Zimmett emerged from the control room, she passed a table piled high with foil-wrapped breakfast sandwiches, the first of four free meals provided each day during big stories. And in a workplace not known for its perks, employees are being offered help finding additional child care and free massages in the office.
“People are tired,” Ms. Zimmett said.“But there is an adrenaline that comes with an event like this.”
At Friday’s 9:15 a.m. editorial meeting, Ms. Zimmett and a few dozen executives crowded around a conference table to discuss coverage plans for the days ahead.
At issue was where to position Mr. Cantore and the dozen other anchors — most of them trained meteorologists with graduate degrees — who would be reporting from the field. The tension, as always, was how close they could get to the center of the storm without putting themselves in danger, or losing the ability to broadcast.
Even with the production support team — a roving fuel truck accompanied by a sport utility vehicle packed with food, water, underwear, socks, bug spray, batteries, hard hats and cash — it was a juggling act.
Before the meeting broke, Stu Ostro, senior director of weather communications, briefed his colleagues on the latest forecast and what they should tell the public. Irma, having passed over the Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean, remained an enormous storm that experts said could overwhelm the state of Florida. Further east, Hurricane Jose was gaining strength.
“Two weeks ago, we were using the word ‘surreal’ for Texas,” Mr. Ostro said. “What word do we use for this?”
Yet in all the nonstop coverage there was no mention of climate change and its role in creating extreme weather — not at the morning meeting, and not at other planning sessions throughout the day.
With a major storm on the way, the focus was understandably on the latest forecast and how residents should prepare. Yet the omission reflects the network’s delicate balancing act. Though there is no debate among Weather Channel executives and meteorologists about man-made global warming, they are wary of alienating their core audience, which leans right.
“I believe in climate change, and I believe it’s man-made,” said Dave Shull, the company’s chief executive and a Republican, who spent much of Friday in the newsroom. “But I’m not a big fan of the term. It’s been politicized.”
It’s not that the Weather Channel ignores climate change altogether. A recent series, “Vanishing America,” examined cities “threatened by the effects of a changing landscape.” On the network’s morning show, animated segments dramatized the findings of a recent study on sea level rise from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And the network does occasionally wade into politics. In March, when Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said he didn’t believe that carbon dioxide was the leading cause of global warming, a Weather Channel meteorologist took to the air with a rebuttal.
But the words “climate change” don’t appear in any promotional materials or show titles, and the phrase is only occasionally uttered on the air.
“We try to find ways to educate people without isolating people,” said Ms. Zimmett. “To show it through science is less alienating than saying that everyone needs to become a vegan or methane is going to kill us all.”
Late Friday morning, Ms. Zimmett was focused on Irma’s potentially fatal storm surge. She watched as Greg Postel, a hurricane expert, used augmented reality to demonstrate the effects of flooding and urged viewers in low-lying coastal areas to evacuate.
“Meteorologists come to work with the goal of saving lives,” said Ms. Zimmett. “It sounds sappy, but it’s true.”
In the aftermath of Harvey, Mr. Cantore and other Weather Channel reporters — along with those from other media outlets — assisted in rescues. And throughout Friday, anchors offered tips for staying safe and urged Florida residents to take shelter or evacuate.
As Friday went on, it became clear that Atlanta would likely get hit, too. In preparation, backup generators and batteries had been tested and fuel tanks topped off. A satellite truck was standing by in case the generator failed. At nearby hotels, 75 rooms had been booked in case employees couldn’t get home. And 100 air mattresses were at the ready for anyone who needed to sleep at the office.
“The storm is coming to the Weather Channel,” Ms. Zimmett said.
The Weather Channel, founded in 1982, was bought by the private equity firms Blackstone Group and Bain Capital, along with the cable group NBC Universal, in 2008 for about $3.5 billion. In 2015, it sold its digital operations — including its website and app — to IBM for a reported $2 billion.
That has left the network as an unusual media entity — a stand-alone cable channel with little leverage and no digital assets. In 2014, it was humbled in a bitter fee dispute with DirecTV, yielding substantial concessions to the satellite distributor while publicly accepting much of the blame for the standoff.
Yet the Weather Channel has its strengths. It offers compelling live programming — at least during natural disasters — and unusual expertise: It is staffed by hundreds of passionate, self-described “weather geeks,” most of whom have a personal story that explains their fascination with storms.
Rick Knabb, an expert at the network, got hooked in 1979, when he was 11 years old in Ft. Lauderdale, and Hurricane David threatened Florida.
“I remember being really scared,” he said. “And I remember watching the director of the Hurricane Center brief the public on TV, and telling my parents, ‘I want to do that.’”
Mr. Knabb ultimately got the job, serving as director of the National Hurricane Center for five years, and rejoining the Weather Channel in May.
On Friday afternoon, he studied the latest forecasts and prepared to go on the air. Irma had moved over Cuba and was expected to strengthen before hitting Florida. Soon, dinner would arrive from a local caterer. And sometime around midnight, 50 or so pizzas would be delivered.
“I have a love-hate relationship with hurricanes,” Mr. Knabb said. “I love the meteorology and the science and the role I can play in keeping people safe. But I hate what hurricanes can do.”
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