Anyone updating the Gershwins' They All Laughed could do worse than to include a lyric about the Weather Channel.
Imagine, a television network devoted entirely to weather news and information, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What next, the Dormant Volcano Channel? The Hibernating Bear Network?
Yet the 11-year-old Weather Channel, based in Atlanta and owned by Landmark Communications Inc., a media conglomerate based in Norfolk, Va., is finding unexpected success.
Available to 90 percent of all homes with cable television, the network has enjoyed a surge in viewership, which was up 17 percent last year from 1991 in households tuning in, according to Nielsen data. And there has been a concomitant rise in advertising revenue, which more than doubled from 1987 to 1992.
"We justify our existence to the advertisers based on our ability to deliver an audience that buys their products," said F. Kip Vanderbilt, the New York sales manager for the Weather Channel.
To be sure, the network's best performances come with the worst weather. The Weather Channel set a ratings record in March, when the Northeast was battered by a surprise blizzard; it drew 4 percent more viewers than mighty CNN over a 30-hour period. Those results bested a peak three months earlier, during the severe storms that swamped the Northeast on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12.
"What's designed for the viewer becomes a significant benefit for the advertiser," said Frank Garland, vice president and advertising sales director of the network.
If there was any fact to rain on the Weather Channel's parade, it would be this: Viewers tune in for only brief periods, averaging 11.6 minutes.
To reach the total audience they seek, many advertisers "need to be able to afford more spots" than would run on other networks, said Jon Stoner, the senior manager of consumer marketing at the American Express Travelers Cheque Group of New York.
Executives at the Weather Channel acknowledge that viewers' encounters with the network are likely to be brief, noting that the network's programing is based on a repeating 15-minute "wheel," or schedule.
"The reason they tune out is because they got what they wanted," Garland said, adding that his research shows the duration of viewership for other cable networks is not much longer.
One way the Weather Channel copes with its viewers' shower-length visits is to arrange commercials in 60-second pods. During a 12-minute period, a viewer can see three 60-second commercials, or six 30-second commercials, but no single commercial break will last more than a minute.
Another way the network addresses the problem is to offer advertisers on-screen identification over weather maps, commercials that can be tagged with localized retailer information and sponsorships of specific program segments like morning forecasts, weather for travelers, storm updates and school-day forecasts.
Jack Myers, the president of Myers Reports, a consulting company in Parsippany, N.J., said, "Unlike many cable networks, the Weather Channel leads with its creative foot, if you will." In a survey he conducted last year among marketers and their agencies, covering 24 networks, the Weather Channel finished first in areas such as value for money spent and offering customized advertising packages.
The proliferation of advertiser identifications during the network's programing, atop the frequent commercials, might remind some viewers of the broadcast television of the 1950s, when sponsors' names appeared even in program titles (Camel News Caravan, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars).
The Weather Channel is actively seeking opportunities for promotions and sponsorships in which its name is prominently mentioned. Recent examples include a Weather Guide calendar, which has sold more than 80,000 copies, and a contest co-sponsored with Columbia Pictures tied to the release of the comedy Groundhog Day.
Just consider the possibilities if someone were to remake Stormy Weather.