Lois Rutherford is a hardy 74-year-old who has seen some rough weather in her day: "Charlie, David, Hugo," she said while standing on a frigid Mount Washington viewing deck last week, ticking off the names of hurricanes that have raked her hometown of Charleston, S.C.
But Hercules? Janus? Those studly "named" winter blizzards -- introduced by The Weather Channel in 2012 -- didn't ring a bell with Mrs. Rutherford, who nonetheless describes herself as happily obsessed with weather coverage, especially these days.
"I love the weather. It may be 7 degrees, but it doesn't bother me one little bit, and I am not going to let it stop me from coming up here before I go back to Charleston tomorrow," she said.
"Where it's 60 degrees," noted her son Ron, of Bethel Park, as he nudged her to get back in the car.
With the so-called polar vortex paying a second visit to Pittsburgh last week, and a third one expected later this week, people seem to be reacting to the frigid temperatures in three different ways:
• They hibernate (even though humans are not hibernating animals).
• They recreate (take that any way you want, but we're referring to those who like to ski, skate or ice fish).
• Or they fixate, like Mrs. Rutherford, on the weather.
The wind chill factor. Record lows, record highs. Snow drift patterns. In the summer, dew points and Derechos (straight line winds). In the winter, Alberta Clippers, polar vortexes and now, snowstorms named for Greek gods.
"We Americans love our weather," said Justin Roberti, a spokesman for AccuWeather, the for-profit service based in State College, Pa. "Weather is very personal to us. We use it to run our lives, and we're very emotional about it."
As compared to what other country? France?
"Europe isn't as into weather as we are," he said -- although, he hastily added that AccuWeather actually provides weather for every longitude and latitude in 27 languages, "and we are seen by a billion people per day."
Have people always been this way? Or are we in the grip of yet another unhealthy modern-day addiction fed by media, whether in the guise of local TV weather forecasts, Internet sites, blogs, mobile apps, or 24/7 cable weather channels?
It appears the latter is true, even as the weather business is being buffeted by the winds of change. A two-week standoff between The Weather Channel and DirecTV has roiled the viewing habits of hundreds of thousands, even as that other big for-profit weather player, AccuWeather, seeks to leverage the dispute to attract publicity for its own planned 24/7 weather channel.
All of this is happening in an era when weather junkies can check radar on their smartphone and the idea of a 24/7 weather channel is looking more and more like a relic of the 1980s, when cable television was in its infancy and the need for content was acute. Today, 67 percent of people age 40 or older still rely on television weather -- whether local or cable -- first and foremost, according to the Pew Research Center, compared to 21 percent who rely on the Internet. Under age 40, though, it's more of a tie, with 44 percent relying on television and 41 percent relying on the Internet.
In such a climate, the economics of round-the-clock coverage, at least when skies are clear, appear increasingly murky, and in recent years, more than 40 percent of The Weather Channel's programming has been dedicated to reality shows, not weather -- an approach that actually brings in higher ratings during quiet spells, Weather Channel spokeswoman Shirley Powell said.
Broad scientific expertise was in fact once a staple of The Weather Channel's lineup, which boasted some of the nation's top severe weather and hurricane experts: John Hope, who, as a government meteorologist in 1969, used his daughter Camille's name for one of the most destructive hurricanes in history; Steve Lyons; and Greg Forbes. Mr. Hope died in 2002 and Mr. Lyons left in 2012, although Mr. Forbes, a Latrobe native, remains. Last fall, the channel hired a popular New York anchorman who doesn't have a college meteorology degree. Sam Champion appeared on WABC in New York and on "Good Morning America" before jumping to the "Today" show.
DirectTV plays hardball
On Jan. 14, DirecTV stopped carrying The Weather Channel after negotiations broke down, claiming in a statement that the channel had strayed too far from its mission -- "Consumers understand there are now a variety of other ways to get weather coverage, free of reality show clutter."
But there are reports that the satellite broadcaster wants to cut fees it pays The Weather Channel, co-owned by NBCUniversal, by 20 percent -- which might lead to other cable carriers following suit. It also added a no-frills, all-weather-all-the-time Colorado newcomer called WeatherNation instead, which uses a three-hour taped loop instead of broadcasting live.
The Weather Channel cried foul, calling WeatherNation a cheaper version of itself without the kind of experience and deep bench strength it possesses -- 220 meteorologists are on staff there. It also took out full-page ads in major newspapers Wednesday urging DirecTV subscribers to contact Congress and switch providers and demanding the cable carrier pay viewers' cancellation fees once they do switch. More than 4 million customers have complained about DirecTV's move on keeptheweatherchannel.com, the company claims, more than 400,000 have called and emailed DirecTV, and more than 90,000 have pledged to switch providers.
Jim Cantore, whose reports while knee-deep in storm surges and hurricane winds have made him a star on The Weather Channel, also appeared on CNN last Sunday, painting DirecTV's action as a possible threat to public safety.
"Whether you're an emergency manager's office, whether you're even at the National Weather Service or a local TV station, your first hint at what's to come is from The Weather Channel," he said.
Really? National Weather Service meteorologists were furious, noting that the government agency happens to provide The Weather Channel with most of its observational and predictive weather data from satellites, radars, computerized weather models and current conditions.
Mr. Cantore later said he misspoke and was back on duty this past week covering "Winter Storm Janus" as it bore down on Washington, D.C. Weather Channel spokeswoman Shirley Powell noted that "Jim loves the National Weather Service and they love him."
Amid all of this, AccuWeather, apparently sensing an opportunity, decided to move up its announcement of its own 24/7 weather channel, scheduled to debut later this year.
That news was met with some head-scratching by meteorologists, who are still deriding AccuWeather's decision last summer to introduce a 45-day "forecast" in defiance of commonly accepted scientific norms, which state that any prediction beyond seven days is mostly guesswork based on long-term climatological averages.
"There cannot be skill at those ranges -- it goes back to chaos theory," meteorologist Steve Tracton told the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.
AccuWeather's founder, Joel Myers, was something of a wunderkind when he studied meteorology at Penn State University, but today, many academics consider him more of a showman, in pursuit of profit, sometimes at the expense of accuracy.
One Penn State meteorology instructor, Jon Nece, had his class compare AccuWeather's 45-day forecasts with standardized climatological averages and found AccuWeather's record ended up being worse.
AccuWeather spokesman Justin Robert was unrepentant.
"That was essentially one study by one group over a couple of different locations over a discrete period of time," he said. "Is the 45-day forecast going to be as accurate as the next day forecast? Certainly not, but we are providing much more detail in a forecast form, a greater level of detail, than you can find anywhere else. We're responding to this hunger out there for information, delivered on a detailed basis."
While people sometimes accuse Accuweather of gimmickry, competitors usually end up copying it, he added. AccuWeather took the basic windchill factor taught in meteorological schools, he said, and, using a proprietary algorhythm, introduced "RealFeel," and then The Weather Channel came up with "FeelsLike."
"We're the ones who introduced the five-day, the seven-day, the 10-day, the 25-day and the 30-day forecast and people scoffed at every one of them. Now -- at least up to the 10-day -- they're the industry standard."
Perhaps, but do people really need two weather cable channels or any?
Sure they do, especially this winter, where a certain sense of community seems to have evolved as we remain trapped together under a iron dome of cold that dulls the sky, bleaches dark asphalt streets a chalky white and makes metal railings burn to the touch.
Have a nice week.
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.