JOIN EHA

DONATE

Published by EH.Net (October 2002)

Batten, Frank., The Weather Channel: The Improbable Rise of a Media

Phenomenon. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 2002, ix

+ 276p., $29.95 (Hardcover), ISBN:1-57851-559-9

Reviewed for EH.Net by Toby G. Bates, Department of History, University of

Mississippi

Frank Batten’s The Weather Channel: The Improbable Rise of a Media

Phenomenon examines the difficult yet rewarding journey of a novel idea

turned billion dollar reality. The work, in crisp chronological succession,

describes the pitfalls and successes of what has become an American cultural

mainstay. Batten illustrates in great detail how a proposal suggested in cable

television’s infancy, deemed by critics doomed to swift failure, rapidly

expanded into a media empire beyond television. Serving as a blueprint and

rallying cry for all budding entrepreneurs, the author reveals that the more

difficult the task, the greater the eventual success. Written with a folksy

manner for non-academics, yet containing a linguistic nod and a serious style

for students of business, Batten’s work reads as a long birth announcement with

the author assuming the role of the proud father. As with most children, “The

Weather Channel” supplied numerous parental headaches from the drawing board to

the first broadcast inception of the great cable experiment. As an entire

generation has learned that “The Weather Channel” is only a press of the button

away, Batten reveals that the initial efforts possessed birth pains that at any

one time could have ended the untried endeavor.

Batten begins his journey describing his role in Landmark Communications, the

parent company of “The Weather Channel.” He details in simple style the life

lessons and economic influence of his uncle, Samuel L. Slover, who founded the

company that eventually transformed into Landmark Communications. Batten

reveals how his uncle influenced his life through simple talk and direct

action. The author shares that many of his own actions resulted from the

imparted teachings of his uncle and thus provides a gracious nod to the

enduring legacy of Slover.

Batten supplies many accounts of the initial financial attempts at success,

forays into trouble, and his enduring optimism. He gives accounts of the early

antenna cable television, the particulars of that technology, the battles for

television franchises, and examples of young pioneers such as Ted Turner.

Batten details the struggle of acquiring advertising revenue for The Weather

Channel as potential clients remained wary of investing in a new television

experiment during the recession of the early 1980s. Batten and others attempted

to win new profits by revealing his crystal ball of prediction while

proclaiming to potential clients that in ten years (the 1990s) cable television

will hurt the networks. Money problems plagued the early years of “The Weather

Channel.” Batten details of how, once in the early 1980s, the fledging

experiment came within days of ceasing operation, only to be saved financially

by outsiders.

The author also details the sheer technical machinery and at times wizardry

utilized to successfully initiate and run the never-attempted twenty-four hour

weather operation. Batten carefully walks through the process of acquiring a

satellite for the new network and the quirk of fate that allowed “The Weather

Channel” to gain a “bird” at the last possible moment. The author also

discusses the choice of Atlanta as home office. Batten talked about the

managerial difficulties stumbled upon, as faith and grit became the watchwords

of those involved until the new cable experiment began to return a profit. He

also recounts many personal stories of the on-air personalities and the various

experimentation that occurred, often spontaneous and while the camera rolled.

He records that while conducting untried tests in broadcasting occurred behind

the scenes, what transpired in front of the camera often was new as well.

Batten looks with great pride at the present condition of “The Weather Channel”

as well as cable television in general. He writes of the expansion of the

entire cable industry as “The Weather Channel” itself expanded beyond

television as the information super-highway and technological advancements have

enabled greater opportunities to expand on the twenty year old experiment. He

details the somewhat successful and, depending on the region, involved

unsuccessful forays into Canada, Latin America, Europe, the acquisition of The

Travel Channel, as well as the dot.com market. Batten concludes his work with

great optimism as he peers into the future of his creation. His work is one

that proves that a great idea combined with hard work and a little luck can, as

the business world perceives, blossom into a billion-dollar industry virtually

overnight.

The critiques for Batten’s piece are few. The work did allow for some

repetition within the narrative as several of the author’s accounts included

either the same or very similar information. Also, the inclusion of the history

of early weather reporting and detection seemed out of place and perhaps should

be placed at the beginning of the work. The book also would stand to gain from

more of the behind-the-scene material concerning the television crews and

anchors. Batten does supply some of this at the conclusion of his work, but not

nearly enough. A good deal of the out-of-sight escapades, placed throughout the

text and especially focusing on the early years of “The Weather Channel,” would

have brought the personalities of the participants more clearly to the

forefront and revealed the on- and off-air experimentation that occurred at the

time. Finally, more pictures, again with an emphasis on the early years, would

have colored the narrative beautifully.

Batten generally speaking does very well in his work. His narrative

concentrates on the establishment of a media dream and places that creation in

the middle of the economic and business world of the time. The author’s unique

style of prose allows the reader to comprehend economic issues in clear terms

while allowing Batten to reach a wide audience. The work will appeal to not

only entrepreneurs with a dream, but also to those who allow for some time in

their day, no matter how minuscule, for “The Weather Channel.”

Toby G. Bates is a Ph.D. candidate in modern American history at the University

of Mississippi.