How an arcane TV channel finds calm amid net storms

These are troublous times for the network business, what with downsizing and consolidations, so perhaps we should pay homage to one network chief who advocates calm, not combat.

I am speaking of Decker Anstrom, who has just become CEO of that seedbed of network innovation and dynamism, the Weather Channel. The eyes of the industry are on Anstrom as he ponders his early moves. Will he transfer employees en masse from one coast to another, like ABC? Will he try, like Michael Eisner, to re-invent the business through vertical integration?

Not Decker Anstrom. In a sparkling interview with Lee Hall of Electronic Media, Anstrom emphasized: “Part of my job will be just trying to stay out of people’s way.”

No network executive has uttered words like this in a generation. Here, finally, is a man who projects equanimity, not ego.

True, Anstrom, the former CEO of the National Cable Television Assn., did drop a few subtle hints about the future. “We want to continue to improve the product,” he said, adding: “It’s not overly critical to say that we’re not as contemporary in terms of color, graphics, use of video and other things as we need to be.”

These veiled remarks did cause some nervousness among company veterans. The channel’s retro graphics are a key part of its charm, they point out. Watch the Weather Channel and you feel you can magically switch over to “Roller Derby” or “I Love Lucy.”

While local TV news shows employ sophisticated maps and charts, on the Weather Channel storm patterns appear in the form of green blotches that scurry quickly across the screen as though to avoid embarrassment while period elevator music tinkles in the background. When a hurricane is forming, the screen is a sudden mass of red blotches as though from an acne attack.

While commercial stations resolutely recruit bright-eyed young weather men and women, usually representing exotic ethnic mixes, the Weather Channel sticks with stolid WASP meteorologists, most looking like they’ve been up all night. As true scientists, they fixate on detailed reports of storms threatening the Turks and Caicos Islands, as though these places formed the center of the U.S. population.

IS DECKER ANSTROM CONCERNED about any of this? Does he plan a massive overhaul, perhaps merging the development staffs of the Weather Channel’s production studio with its network honchos?

Certainly not, perhaps because there are no development staffs — a fact that Michael Eisner might savor at this moment. Nor is Anstrom worried about the clutter of commercials. Yes, there are commercials on the Weather Channel, often a cluster of five or six in a row.

Some TV networks worry that viewers tend to switch away during these lengthy breaks, but not the Weather Channel. It relies on catchy promos like “We’ll return shortly with more weather information.” Who would turn away from that?

Ever alert to changing trends, the Weather Channel has increased its local updates. In Los Angeles, for example, a chart appears that looks like it was designed for World War II combat briefings, containing such esoterica as the “dew point” and the “ceiling,” the latter of special interest to those who happen to be flying their planes while tuned to the channel. At least there’s a bonus on their local inserts: The elevator music changes.

But then Decker Anstrom has acknowledged his willingness to “improve the product” and also to expand its reach on the Internet. Meanwhile, he has some encouraging data to point to. The latest Nielsens show the Weather Channel registering a robust 0.3 rating, which means that it’s tied for 33rd place in primetime among the 36 cable networks monitored.

At any given time, over 200,000 people might be watching the green blotches hurtling across their TV screens. With results like that, I’d also “stay out of people’s way” — sentiments that are sorely needed in today’s troubled TV environment.

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