In the early 2000s, Americans who wanted to catch local weather forecasts at any time could turn on their televisions and switch to Weatherscan, a 24-hour computer-controlled weather forecast channel with a chilling, relaxing soundtrack. After 23 years, The Weather Channel has announced that Weatherscan will shut down permanently on or before December 9. But a group of die-hard fans won’t leave him alone overnight.
Launched in 1999, Weatherscan currently appears in a dwindling number of local US cable and satellite television markets. It displays automated local weather information on a loop, generated by a locally installed Intellistar computer system for each market. Declining viewership and the ubiquity of smartphone weather apps are the main reasons for its being taken offline.
There are also technical issues related to the maintenance of the hardware behind the service. “Weatherscan has died slowly over the past 10 years because the hardware is getting old,” says Mike Bates, a tech enthusiast who collects and restores Weather Channel computer hardware as part of a group of die-hard fans who follow news from company insiders. “It’s been 20 years now, and more and more cable companies are pulling the service.”
Bates says giants like Comcast and Verizon have already dropped Weatherscan, but smaller cable companies have kept it going. “Due to the small user base of subscribers for the technology, I guess Weather Channel just stopped porting [the Weatherscan system] looking forward to newer hardware,” says Bates. “So they kind of let it run until we were close to death. There are probably 60 or 70 Weatherscans [units] still active there. I don’t know the exact number.”
Over the years, Weatherscan has developed a cult following for the way the service mixes computers with the weather, as well as a certain nostalgia for the smooth jazz music that plays continuously over the forecast. Enthusiasts like Bates (who goes by “techknighton Twitter) have assembled the hardware needed to run their own Weatherscan stations from home. Some have also created software that simulates the service in a browser.
The Weather Channel has amassed a huge following over the decades, and this community maintains a wiki filled with intricate details about beloved on-air talent, discontinued programs, and the back-end technology that brings it all together. It’s this deep tradition that inspires enthusiasts like Bates to try to preserve the gear. “Ultimately, we’re preserving not only the hardware and software we’re nostalgic for, but also the ones that made The Weather Channel what it once was.”
Recently, during the pandemic, Bates reverse-engineered an old Weather Channel computer called the Weather Star 4000. During the 1990s, he provided on-screen computer forecasts up to just before the launch of Weatherscan in 1999, though some units still hang through 2014. Weather Star software has inspired its own wave of nostalgia, including simulators that mimic its distinct retro look.
However, getting Weatherscan to work locally was a team effort, mostly by friends named Ethan, brian, and Jesse. One of the Intellistar computer models behind the service runs FreeBSD on a Pentium 4-based PC in a blue rackmount case. It includes an ATI card to generate the graphics and a proprietary PowerPC card that pulls it all together to make it broadcast-ready.
To get Weatherscan working at home, the group of friends found decommissioned Intellistar units on eBay and used forensic tools to reconstruct hard drive data, piecing together a working version of Weatherscan software from multiple sources. . Since then they have exhibited their work at shows like the Vintage Computer Festival Midwest last month.
News of Weatherscan’s impending demise came in a letter to the National Content & Technology Cooperative (NCTC) in mid-September. There are a few alternative TV weather services left, such as AccuWeather National and WeatherNation, but none will have that smooth jazz charm. Even so, the soul of Weatherscan will always live on through fans like Bates.
“It’s an iconic thing that’s been kind of long forgotten except for enthusiasts,” Bates says. “But the way we consume content has changed dramatically. It’s the end of an era.”