In the early 2000s, Weatherscan, a 24-hour, computer-controlled weather prediction station set to a soothing smooth jazz soundtrack, was available to American viewers who wanted to keep tabs on the day’s forecast whenever they wished. Weatherscan, The Weather Channel’s satellite forecasting service, will end its 23-year run on or around December 9. But a band of devoted followers refuses to let it go away quietly.
First airing in 1999, Weatherscan is gradually disappearing from local cable and satellite TV areas across the United States. Displays automatic local weather reports provided by Intellistar computer systems set up locally for each market. The main reasons it’s being taken down are falling ratings and the prevalence of weather applications on smartphones.
Hardware upkeep presents its own set of challenges to the smooth operation of the service. Mike Bates, a tech enthusiast who collects and maintains Weather Channel computer gear as part of a group of die-hard fans that follow insider news from the firm, says, “Weatherscan has been dying a slow death over the course of the last 10 years because the technology is outdated.” It’s been around for 20 years, and cable providers are increasingly dropping support for it.
According to Bate, major ISPs like Comcast and Verizon have already discontinued Weatherscan, while several smaller cable providers have kept it running. Bates speculates that the Weather Channel has stopped updating the Weatherscan system to work with new hardware because of the relatively small number of people who utilize the technology.
“So they just let it go on and on until we were really on our last breath. Sixty to seventy Weatherscan [units] are still in use today. To be honest, I have no idea.”
The unique method in which Weatherscan combines technology with the weather, along with a certain sense of nostalgia for the soothing jazz music that plays in the background as the forecasts are given, has earned the service a devoted fan base over the years.
Bates, a Twitter user who goes by the name “tech knight,” is just one of many enthusiasts who have amassed the equipment needed to operate their own Weatherscan stations in their homes. Some developers have even produced browser-based software that effectively mimics the service.
Over the years, The Weather Channel has built a sizable fan base, and that audience keeps a wiki updated with lore about their favorite presenters, canceled shows, and the infrastructure behind the scenes.
That extensive history is what drives Bates and other enthusiasts to work to keep the machines in working order. Ultimately, “we are conserving the gear and software that made The Weather Channel what it once was,” not only because it brings back fond memories.
Bates recently, during the epidemic, reverse-engineered a previous Weather Channel computer, named the Weather Star 4000. Until the debut of Weatherscan in 1999, it was the go-to source for on-screen computer predictions during the 1990s; nonetheless, some units continued to operate as late as 2014.
There has been a resurgence of interest in the retro style of the Weather Star program, complete with simulators designed to appear as it did back in the day.
However, it took a group effort, led by pals Ethan, Brian, and Jesse, to get Weatherscan up and running locally. The service is powered by Intellistar computers, one of which is a Pentium 4-based PC in a blue rack-mount enclosure running FreeBSD. It has a proprietary PowerPC-based card that ties everything together and an ATI card for rendering the visuals.
The group of friends obtained decommissioned Intellistar systems on eBay and used forensic tools to reconstruct data from the hard drives, eventually creating a fully functional version of Weatherscan from several sources that could be utilized in a home environment. They have since displayed their creations at events such as last month’s Vintage Computer Festival Midwest.
Midway through the month of September, a letter was sent to the National Content & Technology Cooperative (NCTC) announcing the closure of Weatherscan.
Although AccuWeather National and WeatherNation are two of the few remaining TV weather services, none will ever match the smooth jazz appeal of the originals. Even yet, it’s owing to devoted readers like Bates that Weatherscan’s spirit will endure.