Longtime weathercaster John Coleman died at his home in Las Vegas on Saturday at the age of 83. Coleman was best known for his role as the original weathercaster on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in the 1970s and for spearheading the creation of The Weather Channel, which debuted in 1982. In recent years, he was among the most outspoken of public figures denying the validity of mainstream climate science.
“Thirty five years ago John Coleman and others founded The Weather Channel to answer a demand for around-the-clock weather information,” said TWC in a statement on Monday. “We will forever appreciate his vision that we continue to this day as the demand for severe weather coverage and hyper-local forecasting is at an all-time high.”
Coleman’s on-air career was a rarity in weathercasting: it extended from the early days of television all the way to the 2010s. A native of Alpine, Texas, Coleman began weathercasting at WCIA-TV (Champaign, IL) in the mid-1950s while earning his bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Illinois. Coleman then worked his way up the TV-weathercasting ladder at several Midwest locations, including Peoria, Omaha, and Milwaukee, before landing in Chicago, where he rose to regional fame at WBBM (1967-68), WLS (1968-79), and WMAQ (1984-90).
On-the-air antics and graphical innovations
Like many of his colleagues in the early days of TV weather, Coleman was an unabashed showman, and his talents meshed with the 1970s advent of “happy news,” which sought to lighten the often-somber tone of the evening news. When the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) was under construction in Chicago, Coleman presented a WLS weathercast by remote video while sitting on a beam atop the 110-story framework. He reportedly told viewers: “I am looking out on the western horizon to find that front I’ve been predicting the last few days.”
Coleman’s interest in the visual side of TV weather led to technical innovations. In 1972, he and WLS were among the first to use chromakey for weathercasting. With chromakey, a weathercaster can stand in front of a “green screen” while maps are electronically added to the image behind the weathercaster. The technique had been invented at NBC in the 1950s, but it didn’t gain more widespread use until computerized weather maps became standard in the early 1980s. Coleman also was a groundbreaking adopter of satellite loops based on imagery from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) series, which began in 1975.
|Figure 1. John Coleman during his tenure at Chicago’s WLS-TV. Image credit: ABC 7, courtesy Robert Feder.|
Making a national splash
In 1976, Coleman was tapped to serve as the first weathercaster for the fledgling ABC series “Good Morning America,” which faced long odds against NBC’s “Today” show but managed to succeed. “Today” had included weather reports in various modes since its debut in 1952, but Coleman was the first person to gain national fame as the type of stand-before-a-map weathercaster that we know today (soon followed by Bob Ryan on “Today”). What viewers didn’t realize was that Coleman presented his segments via a satellite uplink from Chicago, where he continued to do evening weather at WLS.
“Good Morning America” was a success, but Coleman soon chafed at the constraints of reporting on a whole nation’s worth of weather in a short segment. When I interviewed him for the book that became “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology,” Coleman told me about a pivotal moment that took place on June 30, 1978:
“I had the weather for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and the [July Fourth] holiday to report, for all fifty states, and I had significant weather developments….an awful lot to talk about. Seconds before I went on the air, the weathercast was shortened from two and a half minutes to a minute and a half, because they wanted a little more time for an interview with a Hollywood star coming up. It was done with total disregard for the weather situation…I got off the air so frustrated, I really couldn’t function.”
Before long, Coleman began to promote the idea of a 24-hour “weather channel” on cable TV. Cable audiences were growing quickly—CNN debuted in 1980—and Coleman wanted far more comprehensive national coverage than his morning GMA segments would allow. In 1981, Coleman was brought together with Landmark Communications, a Virginia-based media firm. “From the beginning of our talks, it was abundantly clear that Coleman was obsessed with starting a weather channel,” said Landmark chairman and CEO Frank Batten. The two joined forces, with Coleman becoming president of The Weather Channel and departing “Good Morning America.” TWC debuted on May 2, 1982.
|Figure 2. John Coleman promotes an ABC segment on Nov. 12, 1981, with a weather outlook for the second launch of space shuttle Columbia. Image credit: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images.|
Batten tells the story of TWC’s first year in great depth in his book “The Weather Channel: The Improbable Rise of a Media Phenomenon.” In those early days, TWC faced hurricane-strength headwinds in getting onto the nation’s many cable systems and bringing in advertisers. Coleman’s nonstop energy and skill in promotion gave the upstart channel a nationwide profile, and he took great care to bring in quality staff, interviewing every finalist for on-camera meteorologist. However, TWC’s financial picture was dire by the end of its first year, worsened by a recession. In 1983, the channel came within weeks of closing—“we began planning for a proper funeral,” recalled Batten—before Coleman, unable to find a buyer for the company, was forced to step aside as president. Soon afterward, a new arrangement with cable providers gave TWC the revenue it needed to survive and ultimately thrive.
As it turns out, Coleman was only halfway through his 60-year career in weathercasting. He had already been named Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year by the National Weather Association in 1981 and by the American Meteorological Society in 1983. After stints at New York’s WCBS and Chicago’s WMAQ, Coleman moved to San Diego, where he served as weathercaster for KUSI from 1994 through 2014.
Climate and controversy
Coleman was best known in recent years for his fiery denunciations of mainstream climate change science. It began in 2007 after Coleman took offense at NBC’s “Green Week” promotions. Later that year, Coleman wrote a essay, “Comments about Global Warming,” in which he echoed U.S. senator Jim Inhofe by calling global warming “the greatest scam in history. I am amazed, appalled and highly offended by it.” He predicted that “in a decade or two, the outrageous scam will be obvious. As the temperature rises, polar ice cap melting, coastal flooding and super storm pattern all fail to occur as predicted everyone will come to realize we have been duped.” As recently as 2017, Coleman was referring to climate change as “baloney” on CNN and called it a “totally failed theory” on his blog.
Coleman’s original essay did not engage the specifics of climate science in any thoughtful way—his main concern seemed to be that researchers “disrespect business” and will do anything to get grants—but his diatribes gained an outsized amount of attention, and fueled the phenomenon of climate change denial, largely because of Coleman’s tenure as TWC founder and president. TWC itself has stressed the reality and gravity of climate change in a series of position statements updated over the past 17 years; here’s the current one.
Thanks in large part to the tireless dedication of John Coleman, The Weather Channel became a true pioneer in cable TV. It’s tremendously unfortunate that Coleman later devoted the same energy to dismissing climate change science and the people who carry it out. Coleman’s brightest legacy by far will be his accomplishments in making national-scale weathercasting an important part of U.S. culture. It’s this we can keep in mind when watching a satellite loop on TV, or looking out on the western horizon for that long-awaited cold front.
A #legend of #broadcasting and #meteorology @JohnColemanMRWX who founded @weatherchannel died today at 83. He literally changed television and we owe him a debt of #Gratitude pic.twitter.com/zNsyNvyS9w— Al Roker (@alroker) January 21, 2018