The Aviation Channel

Coming Soon to Cable System Near You!
by Glen Moyer

On February 3, 1995 the lights went out on AM Weather for the final time. The 15-minute daily aviation weather program, broadcast nationally on 340 PBS stations, had become a valuable resource for pilots of all disciplines, from airliners to balloons. But after a 17 year run the plug has been pulled.

The cancellation of AM Weather set off a controversy within the aviation/weather and broadcasting community and it's unlikely we will ever know the real reasons for the show's demise. AM Weather was produced by WMPT, the Owings Mills, Maryland, PBS station. The station's director of communications, Sharon Philippart told AOPA Pilot magazine, "...we were proud to produce AM Weather for many years, but not all of the show's cost were covered. We asked all of the participating stations to help out, but this was unsuccessful... In the end, we had to make a difficult business decision."

A.M. Weather's producer, Kay Bond told the same publication a slightly different story. "I was told the decision was not based on funding or viewership," she said, adding that, "we had an aviation company waiting in the wings as a new sponsor, worth $50,000 in funding, the week they (WMPT) made their decision."

One theory surrounding the cancellation was that WMPT wanted to establish a new identity as PBS's business news station. The Monday morning following the last airing of A.M. Weather saw Bloomberg Business News debut on the network in an expanded half-hour format. Coupled with another Bloomberg show, a 30-minute evening news program and the Wall Street Week with Louis Rukseyser, WMPT's search for a business news identity seems to be well underway.

News of the cancellation of A.M. Weather spurred a groundswell of complaints from pilots all across America. WMPT logged more than 3,000 complaints. Other complaints took the form of letters to AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) an underwriter and sponsor of the program. Another organization that has been besieged with requests for help is cable TV's The Weather Channel. Jim Wilson, director of TWCs Online Forum on CompuServe confirmed to Balloon Life that he has received countless requests from A.M. Weather fans everywhere for the network to add an aviation weather segment to its program lineup. Wilson is currently preparing studies for TWCs executives but admits there is some discussion about which would be the best outlet for such a program, putting it on air at TWC or online at CompuServe.

AOPA's Senior Vice President for Communications, Drew Steketee confirmed to Balloon Life that there are ongoing discussions with The Weather Channel about an aviation weather program, but he says there are several drawbacks. "First," Steketee explains, "is the questions of cost as buying time on TWC is about twice as expensive as PBS. Of course, this cost might be more easily defrayed since TWC is a commercial venue that would be more attractive to advertisers since TWC would allow the inclusion of traditional commercials, something PBS does not allow."

Beyond the question of cost Steketee says market penetration is also a concern as TWC reaches only about 59% of US households while the 300+ stations of the PBS network reach 92-94% of US households. Still there are discussions ongoing elating to a possible 5-minute program that would air once a day, probably around the 8 p.m. time slot. Steketee says this type of program would cost about $800 per day and could be paid for perhaps with a commercial sponsor (Steketee mentions Sporty's Pilot Shop) and the balance of the cost being underwritten.

Meanwhile Bruce Landsberg of AOPA's Aviation Safety Foundation has worked hard to keep funding sources for A.M. Weather in tact, though no one knows for how long. Proposals to revive A.M. Weather are pending at other PBS stations, including WBPT in Miami, WGBH Boston, and KTCP Minneapolis.

However, even if funding and the talent, many of whom have moved on to other jobs at the National Weather Service and the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, were to be available, satellite uplink time may not. Uplinking is the process whereby the program's originating station beams it up to a broadcast satellite from which the network affiliate stations then downlink the program for broadcast. Without access to satellite time, the program, even if produced, cannot be distributed for broadcast. Reservations for satellite time are made months in advance and since A.M. Weather lost its slot because of cancellation, a new one may not be readily available.

On Tuesday, April 18th, AOPA officials met with the Maryland Public Television's Board of Directors. While the board promised to look into A.M. Weather's cancellation, Steketee says there is little hope that WMPT will revive the show. At best, Steketee says they might offer some assistance in trying to find a new home for A.M. Weather on some other PBS station. So if the immediate future of A.M. Weather remains clouded, Steketee and others are looking to an even more exciting project, The Aviation Channel.

"The Aviation Channel is a cable network dedicated entirely to general aviation," explains Steketee, adding that, "it would include programs about learning to fly and other subjects along with a dramatically expanded aviation weather segment." According to Steketee the channel would broadcast some 18 hours daily. Still in the concept stages, AOPA is working with two competitors both hoping to have the concept on air by the end of this year at least in a test market stage.

At present, the leading contender in the competition to create The Aviation Channel is a production company run by Australian Phil Osborne. Many aviation enthusiasts may already know his work as Osborne's company is responsible for producing the program Wings on The Discovery Channel (not to be confused with the NBC comedy of the same name). Recently Osborne announced at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. that he has already raised 10-20 million dollars to fund the concept.

While AOPA would like to see A.M. Weather revived, there is some question about whether to act now to get the show back on the air or to wait and throw its support to The Aviation Channel. Steketee admits the channel has some definite advantages not the least of which is an 18-hour a day signal beaming into American homes showing people flying and enjoying general aviation. From a public relation standpoint this could do a lot more for general aviation than any 15-minute weather program beamed at pilots. The downside, if there is one is that it would be two or three years at best before such a channel could reach a significant portion of American TV households. "The problem," says Steketee, "is that most cable companies in the US are limited to 20 or 30 channels and they're all filled up. We'll have to wait for fiber optics and cable systems that can deliver 100, 150 or more channels. Experts say that may be five years away but we feel we can begin in two or three."

For now the future remains uncertain. Efforts are underway to revive A.M. Weather but only if it can be done on a cost efficient basis. While it may promise great adventure, The Aviation Channel is still months, possibly years away from reality. What is certain is that a valuable weather resource for pilots has been lost, leaving most of us searching for a substitute. Still, A.M. Weather has arisen from the ashes once before when it was first cancelled in 1976. It took two years to revive the program then and with luck, this interruption in service will similarly prove to be only temporary.

Copyright © 1995 Balloon Life. All rights reserved.