In this era of media company layoffs and mergers, perhaps it was only a matter of time before The Weather Channel (TWC) was put up on the auction block. But while its loyal viewers should view the potential sale of the venerable network with some skepticism, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic as well.
The Atlanta, Georgia based network that has been owned by Landmark Communications since its inception in 1982 is a staple of the American cable television and online marketplace. It is especially beloved by weather geeks like myself who consider it required viewing, and by some elderly people who feel soothed by the constant repetition of meteorological phrases and local forecast music. (Perhaps that's a bit unfair, but I don't know of other groups of people who watch the station for more than about ten minutes at a time).
Once derided as "the map channel," the station is now viewed by 96 million households, according to Reuters, and can be seen in more than 97 percent of all homes with cable television across the country. Its web site is the top online weather source and ranks among the top 20 most visited sites on the Internet. In addition, the music the network plays during its local forecast segment (aired every 10 minutes) has done wonders for the elevator music marketplace, and its on air personalities have become celebrities, particularly during hurricane season.
I was fed a steady diet of TWC growing up, which is to say that I had an extremely boring childhood. When I was in elementary school my time spent with friends often consisted of me watching TWC while they watched me and tried in vain to figure out why anyone would watch something so lame. I admired the geeky early TWC personalities such as John Hope and Bill Keneely (the latter is still on the air there), and the network helped inspire me to pursue a career in a weather-related field. Therefore, the prospect of major changes at the network is unsettling to me on a personal level, especially now that I know people who work for the station and will be affected by any personnel shifts. However, I think ultimately a sale of the station could be a boon for weather programming in this country.
The main reason for this is that TWC currently falls far short in one key respect: it has limited its on-air coverage mainly to the weather, and despite some relatively small attempts to the contrary, it has made only small investments in covering weather-related news events. There is a large potential for it to expand such coverage and gain more viewers.
TWC currently operates in a fuzzy middle ground between a weather broadcaster and a news broadcaster. While they do an excellent job at forecasting the weather, I've never been impressed by their attempts to cover weather-related news events, such as the California wildfires, the aftermath of hurricanes and floods, as well as weather-related aviation mishaps. Instead, they've been more effective in ceding ground to traditional news outlets, although they have made some attempts to insert a news component to their programming, particularly in the area of global climate change (which is an effort I contributed to).
A glance at the list of reported suitors demonstrates why there are some reasons for optimism that national weather broadcasting and online services will be enhanced, rather than dismantled, by a departure of TWC from the protective umbrella of its longtime owner.
According to Reuters, several major media and cable providers are considering making a second bid for the network by early next month. These include NBC Universal, News Corp., Comcast Corp., CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc. Other media companies have expressed some interest, such as D.C. area-based Discovery Communications.
The composition of TWC's list of suitors suggests that weather coverage is moving further towards the more mainstream category of news and entertainment and beyond the more limited confines of education and public safety information, which is where TWC was anchored when it began broadcasting H's and L's more than twenty years ago. This would likely be a net positive for the meteorological community, especially now that climate change is front page news and the atmospheric sciences are becoming increasingly intertwined with major public policy decisions.
TWC's current shortcomings in the weather news area likely have much to do with the composition of their on-air staff, who are mainly meteorologists rather than news reporters, in addition to financial pressures. But weather is news, and many news events are weather-related, so there significant room for TWC to put up an "under new ownership" sign and expand its coverage into areas that it does not currently have the resources to focus on. A sale to a news organization would infuse the network with additional news resources, at the minimum giving them more access to general assignment reporters.
In addition, one of the advantages of pairing TWC's weather expertise and strong brand name with an existing news organization such as NBC, Fox or CBS is that it could increase the ability of TWC to offer more localized weather broadcasts, potentially by establishing regional affiliates within remaining network bureaus, such as New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. TWC currently has some affiliate agreements, but there are many potential advantages to establishing a network of regional bureaus that could be tapped to provide a more localized take on severe weather events, rather than having a tag team of national meteorologists make a mad dash across the screen, trying to fit in national and local information before the next "Local on the 8s" cuts them off.
While this would be an expensive undertaking today, a buyout that results in the unification of TWC's operations with an existing national and international newsroom could provide enough resources to make this happen.
The impending sale, potentially to the tune of three to five billion dollars, also reflects general media trends towards investing more money online as television audiences fragment and dwindle. Here too a sale could increase weather news coverage by pairing TWC's weather expertise with a major newsroom.
According to press accounts, financial analysts believe that it is TWC's strong online brand, which includes everything from severe weather alerts to personalized forecasts and home and garden information, make the company an attractive acquisition target. This is especially the case for news organizations such as NBC Universal, which operates its own digital weather network known as "WeatherPlus." NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker reportedly told Harvard students that TWC's online properties were "one of the crown jewels" of the network.
For me, the prospect of msnbc.weather.com is an attractive one, not something to fear.
Disclaimer: Andrew Freedman worked as a freelance writer for The Weather Channel's Forecast Earth Web Site during 2006 and 2007, but is no longer associated with the network.