Thursday, December 13, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Weather Wins TV Viewers' Loyalty

Three years ago, KING-TV aired ``Teen Sex: What About the Kids?'', a frank and unflinching hour-long special that included a scene showing spermicidal jelly being squeezed into a condom. The potential hand grenade of controversy drew a fairly fizzly response: about 175 calls during the three days leading up to the show, and fewer than 60 calls during airing and immediately after the program aired.

After veteran Channel 5 weathercaster Jeff Renner reappeared on the air Monday after an almost yearlong absence, KING's switchboard lit up with nearly 300 calls hailing his return.

Renner began anchoring the weather on Channel 5 in 1980. After then-news director Don Varyu demoted Renner last year, KING-TV received an ``avalanche'' of pro-Renner mail, according to a station publicist. ``If he leaves it will be good old Harry Wappler and KIRO for me,'' wrote one peeved viewer.

Since Renner's rehiring was announced last week, news director Bob Jordan has tallied about 500 letters and almost 1,000 phone calls.

Which raises the question: Could local viewers feel more strongly about Jeff Renner - or about the weather - than about sex?

They could.

``Weather information ranks among the top two or three items of viewer interest in virtually every major market study we've seen,'' said Roy Meyer of McHugh & Hoffman, a TV news consulting firm based in suburban D.C. which has advised KING-TV and KOMO-TV in the past. ``As a

corollary, the weather presenter tends to be very important.''

So it is, the Renner response reminds us. So it has always been. This helps explain the historical lengths to which some weathercasters have gone to draw viewers into the tent:

As part of the late '60s and early '70s trend toward ``weather girls,'' one San Francisco station hired a former Playboy magazine Playmate of the Year to present the nightly forecast.

Sonny Eliot, a Detroit weathercaster for three decades before leaving the air in 1982, added a bit of flair to his routine by coining new weather terminology: snowy and breezy became ``sneezy;'' showers and wind became ``shindy'' conditions.

A current Motor City weatherman, Chuck Gaidica, introduced the ``cuddle alert,'' raised whenever nighttime temperatures were expected to fall well below normal. His station printed cuddle-alert bumper stickers, and Gaidica went so far as to trademark the expression.

Some stations have stuck their weathercasters outdoors - perhaps to give viewers the satisfaction of seeing rain fall on the heads of those who failed to predict it; other stations have built ``weather windows'' as backdrops, providing a portal to the outside world.

In Minneapolis, a parade of regulars would stand outside WCCO-TV's weather window. One day the striking employees of a competing station picketed outside the window.

Chicago weatherman John Coleman, a 1970s phenom who went on to start the Weather Channel in 1983, once read his Thanksgiving Day forecast to a live gobbler, and is said to have occasionally threatened to stand on his head if his forecasts did not pan out.

Then there are the names and titles of weathercasters, which sometimes seem too good to be true. Los Angeles is home to Johnny Mountain and Dallas Raines. Until recently, Storm Field plied his trade in New York City.

The weathercasters who stress erudition over entertainment occasionally wear their academic credentials proudly, like expensive cuff links. Dr. Frank Field - Storm's father and former competitor at WCBS-TV in New York - is a doctor of optometry. Dr. Dave Eisner, another Chicago weatherman, earned his advanced degree in podiatry.

Seattle's four main weathercasters - Renner at Channel 5, Harry Wappler at KIRO, Steve Pool at KOMO and Dave Torchia at KSTW - deliver the weather straight, with no goofball chasers.

Times have changed.

Channel 5's first forecaster was Bob Hale, promoted as ``KING's cartooning weatherman.'' As he announced the temperature and barometric pressure he sketched poster-size drawings. ``Old Sol'' - his nickname for the sun - was a favorite motif on sunny days.

Kinescopes of 1950s-vintage KOMO broadcasts show a female weathercaster named Marjorie Anderson, the precise spelling of her name since obscured by the sands of time, seated atop a tilted weather map, her legs tucked demurely beneath her and over the Puget Sound.

``We had no electronic gimmicks,'' said KOMO tape library manager Gordy Darragh, ``just gimmicks.''

Nowadays, the electronic gadgets include graphics computers, Doppler radar, and other data-gathering devices to supplant information from the National Weather Service.

``Instead of going for a clown, or just a person who's a physics professor, I think news directors are looking for a knowledgeable person who also has good communications skills,'' said Paul Gross, chairman of the American Meteorological Society board of broadcast meteorology. ``I think that's the ideal weathercaster today.''

Those who rise to the top of the profession easily command six-figure salaries. A 1990 AMS survey of weathercasters in the 10th through 19th largest TV markets in the U.S. (Seattle-Tacoma ranks 13th) found they pulled down an average yearly salary of about $176,000.

Renner has called his new salary ``much more competitive than . . . in the past.'' Station executives hope that Channel 5's newscasts with the addition of Renner will become even more competitive, too. Though the question of cause-and-effect is difficult to answer, ratings for most of Channel 5's evening newscasts on Monday and Tuesday nights showed gains over the previous week.

``Given Renner's popularity over the years, he's back in the family, so to speak,'' said consultant Roy Meyer. ``Longevity, familiarity, tenure are extremely important. Not just for a Walter Cronkite, but for weather and sportscasters, too.''

Already, the return of Renner has reaped dividends for some at KING-TV.

``I can now jog around Green Lake,'' said anchor Jean Enersen, ``without getting stopped by every other jogger, asking `Where's Jeff?' ''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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