That sounds like an insult -- the Weather Channel as a fallback option -- but it isn't intended as one. Rather, the network ranks as one of the only reliable entities on the cable dial, one of the few that -- younger viewers and buzzily buzzy internet buzz be damned -- has remained true to its core mission. It hasn't resorted to, say, tacky tie-ins with disaster flicks or a "Next Great Weather Channel Forecaster" reality competition. Just imagine the potential elimination catchphrases: "Lightning strikes," "You've been tsunami'd," or maybe "Al Roker just tripped and landed on your sorry ass, so go ice your ribs."
That isn't to say there haven't been changes, likely noticed only by hard-core El Niño nerds like me and my dad. For one, the weather gals keep getting younger and friskier. Apparently we, as a nation, have demanded that our plunges in temperature be metaphorically reinforced by equally steep plunges in neckline.
Also, two or three years ago the Weather Channel started breaking away from its loop of "Holy mother of God -- it's hailing in Haiti!" dispatches for a handful of documentary-ish series. I was indifferent to the first wave of them, mostly because the alarmist, solemnly narrated "It Could Happen Tomorrow" (snow squalls in Ecuador! Tidal waves in St. Louis!) and the more effervescent "Epic Conditions" (killer surf and the like for outdoor-adventure dudes/dudettes) didn't intrude on my storm porn.
I'm enjoying the second generation much, much more. In "Forecast Earth" and "When Weather Changed History," the Weather Channel has created two shows that appeal both to its core audience of wind-chill disciples and to, respectively, environment and history buffs. It's a tricky line to toe, especially given the how the channel has conditioned viewers to expect little beyond detailed forecasts and storm-time coverage, but the shows manage to broaden the Weather Channel's topical base in a way that feels entirely natural.
All you need to know about "When Weather Changed History" is encapsulated in its ponderous title. The series surveys historical events, such as NASA launches or pivotal battles, that were affected by the weather. "Rescue From the South Pole," which details efforts to extricate a cancer-stricken researcher from Antarctic isolation, plays like a well-observed, hysteria-free episode of "Rescue 911." I just hope the producers never run out of ideas and start soliciting viewer input ("Next on 'When Weather Changed History': Young Larry was supposed to play in a baseball game under the lights, but it rained. He ended up sleeping over at his friend Louis' house, eating too many Doritos and barfing. Weather ... changed ... history!").
"Forecast Earth," on the other hand, finds the Weather Channel jumping on the green bandwagon. Happily, unlike every other televised effort to that end, the show doesn't feel forced. Obviously the show is pro-conservation, but it refrains from jackhammering that message down anyone's throat, instead presenting a wealth of information and letting viewers draw their own conclusions. The segments -- on David "the Canadian Al Gore" Suzuki or an Amish community adopting solar power -- lack the usual "Dateline"-ish sensationalism. I like the show's personalities as well: Host and environmental guru Dr. Heidi Cullen eschews Katie Couric perk, while Dr. Marcus Eriksen (whose name and looks might get him traded to "Guiding Light" before long) adds energy during his in-the-field segments.
Apropos of nothing: Do the Weather Channel's Powers That Be actively root for tumultuous, swirly-wind weather? On one hand, bad weather means higher ratings. On the other, it means a swath of destruction and loss of lives. I suppose the answer to this question depends on whether you ask the in-house ethicists or the folks in sales.
There's a lot of overlap in the list of marketers hawking their wares during "Forecast Earth" and "When Weather Changed History." Both shows find themselves on the receiving end of advertise-y love from Energizer, Hotels.com and Halls, and each adds a car (Honda Accord and Kia, respectively) and an over-the-counter pharmaceutical (Tylenol and Coricidin) or two. Surprisingly, a majority of the spots target women. Sunday's hour of "When Weather Changed History," for example, featured Lean Cuisine, Hamburger Helper and Pledge. I'm not saying that some or all of these brands don't appeal to fellas, just that none has much utility to me and my fellow maestros of mudslides.
Along those lines, I wonder why comparatively few out-and-about brands -- Garmin GPS doohickeys, Columbia outerwear, pimped-out John Deere riding mowers with turbo and in-dash DVD players -- have allied themselves with the network's original programming. All make more sense for the Weather Channel's hard-core blizzard buffs than existing advertisers such as Purell and 1800PetMeds.com, feisty Betty White's endorsement of the latter notwithstanding.
Some of those companies also could elbow in on the product-placement front. Think about it: Come August, the Weather Channel will send a bunch of cameras to whatever Florida town is about to be annihilated by, like, Hurricane Oprah. Why not see if the network is amenable to outfitting the soon-to-be-wind-whipped saps in coats with a minimally intrusive Columbia label on the lapel? Hell, if a Columbia shell can withstand eight hours on the outskirts of a tornado, I'll buy one o' thems in a minute. This has to happen, if it hasn't already.