Weatherman Sam Champion made a big move from New York to Atlanta, and an even bigger move from ABC, where he worked for 25 years, to the Weather Channel. Champion talked to us about his upcoming show "AMHQ" and how it's going to shake up TV's morning show game.
Metro: What makes “AMHQ” different from an average morning show?
Champion: You’ve got the answer when you ask about an “average morning show.” When you have what is a template that people assume what their choice has to be I think you have a problem. I was in that world for a very long time – successfully. Here’s the deal: I had the chance to re-imagine what that means. Morning are different in my house than they were in my parents’ house. Your first connection to the world is not your television. Your first connection to the world is multiplatform from the moment your phone goes off. You check your messages, Twitter and Facebook and you have an understanding of the running headlines but you might have some questions. I don’t want to see the stuff in the morning that I saw in my evening newscast because I already saw them online.
The news is what’s happening right now or what’s going to happen – what’s planned and scheduled during the day. I want to forecast, if you will, what the day is going to be like. What are the news events that are happening today? What’s the weather? One of the things we have to start with is the weather. We have to begin that show with weather that’s targeted to the area that’s waking up as we wake them up across the country live. That’s what we can do on “AMHQ” that no other show does. The average show is a 3-hour block that airs time delayed on the West Coast. Three hours is an entire news cycle. But we’re waking up people in L.A. in their 6 am to 7 am hour – and in Seattle, Portland and Phoenix. We’re waking everybody up as they wake up with weather that’s targeted to their area and stories that are focused on getting you good to go.
Can you elaborate? How will you do that?
Easy. We spend a lot of time thinking about this. This is me examining a morning period the entire time I’ve been there – 25 years at ABC and eight years at “Good Morning America.” The East Coast is easy – it’s easy to get them up and running, but the information model has to shift a little bit. You have a running idea of the stories you need to know about but what you don’t know is how the weather is going to impact you for the entire day. You need to know what your commute is like when you step out the door – is it 15 minutes longer because of the weather? If a storm comes in at 6 a.m., people will shut down the schools, but if it comes in at noon you may not know what’s coming and everyone’s trapped on the road. What you needed that morning was a comprehensive timing of that system and how it affects your day.
We wake up and target the East Coast stories first, and then in an hour we wake up the middle of the country – Chicago, Louisville – and now their most important story has shifted to the top of priority list. We’ll still cover the East Coast rainstorm, but hit it second. Then we cover the West Coast. We’ve never had this happen in a full service. We’re going to cover America’s weather and we’re going to cover them in a priority line. When the audience surveys come back, we see that 3 out of 4 times they check in on us for their weather and then dip out to get news headlines, pop culture information and maybe some sports to get them prepared for the day. But we don’t want them to dip out of the Weather Channel, so we’ll be ready with headlines and the stories we think are of primary importance in terms of forecasting the day’s news.
Did you take part in planning the show?
They were kind enough to ask me what I thought was missing in the morning time period and how I’d re-imagine that time period. I had the chance to put together an incredibly talented team. We had a common goal and idea to revamp how morning information is given and make it energized and entertaining and move it forward – push it forward. The way we deliver weather graphics is going to be a bit more unique and forward-thinking. We have WSI – it is the main graphics weather information company out there that services how you look at weather and build weather graphics – so we’re working on immersive technology.
What was it like for you to leave ABC?
Twenty-five years is a long time. I knew almost every face in the complex because I saw them every day for 25 years. I wouldn’t have left if there wasn’t a really good reason to leave. An opportunity to build something from the ground up – I felt like I’d regret it if I didn’t take that hugely creative opportunity.
Do you miss the “GMA” gang?
If we didn’t talk to each other every day in some fashion then yes, I’d probably miss it. Some of the most important friendships of my life were at “GMA.” There’s no doubt about that. Josh Elliott is my best friend and I hope will be for the rest of my life. There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not in some way connected. Robin and I text each other back and forth regularly. Lara and I tap into each other, as well, to make sure everybody’s happy and okay. Those relationships are still connected. I don’t think we have to be on top of each other working every day to remain friends.
You were the face of WABC before you went to “GMA” and kind of a New York fixture. What is it like for you to leave?
I felt like I grew up at WABC and ended at ABC. I truly feel like New York is my home more than in any place I lived. I was a military brat and moved around a lot and New York shaped me the most. It’s a place I’ll always be connected to and again, for me it was about the project. I saw the opportunity to build something that I hope is going to be great and wonderful and I would have gone virtually anywhere to do it.
How is it living in Atlanta?
I’m lucky because Atlanta is right at it’s stride. It’s a vibrant city that’s growing quickly and is energized and has a great feel. I tell my friends I moved to the Upper West Side in the late ’80s and to me, Atlanta is like a New York neighborhood 15 years ago. It has a very vibrant feel. The people at the coffee shop know you and the dry cleaners and grocery store are right around the corner, so it’s all within reach and it feels very much like Columbus Avenue did 15 years ago. My view now of the cityscape is of glass buildings on one side and open park on the other – Piedmont Park. Instead of Midtown and Central Park, I look at glass buildings and Piedmont Park. There’s a lot of similarities. New York is truly unique and special but Atlanta is vibrant and exciting and I see some similarities.
It sounds like you’ve had a warm welcome in Atlanta.
Nothing fazes New Yorkers and New Yorkers are not fazed my celebrity at all. They go about their day. In Atlanta, what I found is that people are so kind and nice and they do not want to take your time because they’re so polite but they want to tell you that they like you and say hi. Atlanta is filled with really kind people. I find myself as a New Yorker, sometimes you just get busy and you’re on the move. In Atlanta, you actually stop and hold the door because they just did it for you. It’s a very different thing in that being really gracious to people around you. New York had my heart for such a long time and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know that I would love it and feel at home and both are true.
How’s your new team?
Pretty awesome. When someone says look at the landscape of people on television and you can pick who you think you’d like to work with, you get an opportunity to reach out and touch some people, so we looked for people who were young, energetic and doing TV in a different way and I think we found some. I can’t wait for you guys to get a chance to enjoy them. There are some very talented people on the Weather Channel and so I had a pool of people who are seasoned pros and have a good connection with the audience. I was able to look at Maria LaRosa and Mike Bettes as an easy, easy team. They’re good at what they do and have a unique presentation style. When I hear someone delivering news headlines and it feels like they’re reading them, you lose me with that, but with Anaridis Rodriguez, when she’s in the field and in the studio, she has a fresh take on it. I just had the feeling that she was telling me the news – not reading it or following the prompter. She was telling me stuff she thought was incredibly interesting. With my team, I want that feeling that we’re talking about things as you’re heading out the door – I don’t like to talk to you as much as I want to talk with you.
I think that’s what you’re known for and why you were so popular at WABC. Everyone in New York felt like you were their neighbor.
I love New Yorkers. New Yorkers let me be who I was. They accepted me, and let me tell you – I’m as different as they come. I’m a little quirky, geeky, nerdy. And New Yorkers didn’t judge me. Never did and were always very nice. And when I got married – I tell you, I couldn’t go two feet without someone coming up to physically hug me and say congratulations and get emotional for how happy I was. That’s something I’ll never forget. That’s what I love about this business: It’s the interaction with the people that I love. It’s something I can’t put it into context, how much I appreciated it.