Last week's big blizzard burying Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and points in between generated strong ratings for The Weather Channel, but 1999's Hurricane Floyd still holds the mark for the network's all-time highest ratings. And the 1996 blizzard still holds the snow-related ratings crown.
"The anticipation of the storm starts the ratings, and, by the time, the storm hits its peak, the ratings begin going down," said Terry Connelly, senior vice president of programming and production for The Weather Channel, explaining the typical way the channel charts its own Nielsen temperature.
The ratings peaked on Sunday, Feb 16, with the network pulling in a 1.0 from 5 to 10 a.m. For the entire day, the network tripled its total-day household-rating average with a 0.9 (tying it with Fox News Channel and besting CNN, MSNBC and Headline News). On Monday, the strong viewership numbers continued, with a 0.6 rating.
Market-to-market, the network did even better in total-day Nielsens, with viewers in Washington (3.0), Philadelphia (2.3), New York (1.7) and Baltimore (1.5) all tuning in heavily on Sunday. On Monday, those numbers all fell by, uh, varying degrees.
"It's more an adrenaline rush than excitement," said Connelly of the reaction at The Weather Channel to a big storm. "It's really, man your battle stations, all hands on deck."
Unlike networks that simply need to be on top of the storm, Connelly pointed out, The Weather Channel has to be ahead of it.
"Everything we do on-air is where the storm is going," he said. "Any weather bunny could tell you what it's doing during the storm."
But, for all its forecasting prowess, sometimes the storm can outfox the network. The network planned to deploy a reporter from its Atlanta base to New York and Washington, but airports in the New York area were shut down before meteorologist Jim Cantore could get there. That put the onus on meteorologist Mike Seidel and cameraman Mike Rembert, who were in Washington, to chase the storm to New York. It also required the station to tap WCBS-TV New York meteorologist Janine D'Adamo for on-air duty on Sunday night.
Seidel and Rembert had a memorable journey to New York, driving in the blizzard to the Baltimore-Washington Amtrak stop north of the nation's capital for a long-delayed train trip to New York.
Finally arriving in New York, they raced to the live truck located on Columbus Circle and made the 10 a.m. report. Over the next two days, Seidel filed reports for The Weather Channel, as well as for CBS, ABC and NPR.
"We're about the real meteorology, science, context and frame of reference," said Connelly. "That's why so many of the traditional networks will call us for perspective and don't consider us competitive. They know our brand is the science brand."
Nationwide, the storm did more than just challenge on-air personalities and meteorologists. It also played havoc with station engineering crews. WHCP(TV) Portsmouth, Ohio, for example, was knocked off the air when power was lost to its transmission facility. The station found itself scrambling for more than a day in an attempt to restore power.
Surprisingly, cable MSOs on the hard-hit East Coast had few problems with downed lines. They did report some minor outages.