Soul searching time for The Weather Channel

Analysis

The mighty Weather Channel,  dumped by DirecTV after failed contract negotiations, is facing an unexpected storm. How it withstands it will go a long way in determining whether it remains a relevant and dominant weather force in network television.

The impact of losing DirecTV’s 20 million viewers cannot be dismissed – that’s a sizable chunk of The Weather Channel’s pool of 100 million viewers.  The blow is especially harsh on top of a 19 percent overall drop in viewership since 2011, according to Nielsen data.

While DirecTV says The Weather Channel could return to its line-up, Weather Channel CEO David Kenny says it may remain off the satellite-TV provider for a long time, if not forever.

“We certainly believe it could be permanent,” Kenny told Business Insider.

The challenge The Weather Channel now most confront is how to increase viewership when it’s on a downward trend and its overall pool of potential viewers has shrunk (unless DirecTV brings it back).

It’s also facing increased competition.  In addition to WeatherNation, which has taken its place on DirecTV, AccuWeather announced plans to a launch a 24/7 weather channel this fall and start-up Network Weather says it will launch a channel October 1.  Not to mention, people are increasingly flocking to smartphones and tablets for weather information.

“We have a plan to continue to gain audience in the rest of the TV world,” Kenny told Business Insider.

It will be interesting to see how The Weather Channel adapts to reverse the viewership trend.

The Weather Channel has been criticized, by both viewers and DirecTV, for airing reality TV programs for significant chunks of time, rather than straight weather coverage.

On his Facebook page, severe weather expert Greg Forbes, explains the thought process behind The Weather Channel’s programming line-up – reality TV does better than straight weather coverage when the weather is boring:

What management has … seen … is that on days when the weather is quiet those [reality] shows get much better ratings than our regular weather coverage, so that’s why TWC runs them.

If The Weather Channel caves to the pressure  it airs too much reality TV and just shows straight weather, it could be shooting itself in the foot – except among hard-core weather fanatics.

Ultimately, the Weather Channel needs to figure out how to attract viewers when the weather is not super active, while also reducing the amount of reality TV programming which alienates some of its fans. It hinted at some tactics for achieving this in the fall, when it unveiled a new branding campaign, as the Associated Press reported:

The Weather Channel is not abandoning its long-form programming, but is trying to make these shows more focused on science and the weather so they don’t seem like they could be on any other channel, [Weather Channel president David] Clark said. He cited “Iron Men,” a series about construction workers on high-rise buildings, as one that didn’t work because it didn’t fit the brand. Better fitting the new direction is “Freaks of Nature,” a show about people with unusual abilities to withstand the elements.

If I were running The Weather Channel, I’d also consider broadening the scope of its weather  and environmental reporting rather than just replacing one long-form show with another.  When the weather is quiet domestically, cover international weather, focus on astronomy and the night sky, discuss solar flares, leverage stunning visuals of awesome weather and environmental phenomena, feature climate change debates, and run environmental stories.  In short, mainstream geeky topics and focus on building back a solid core audience – including but extending beyond simply weather fans.  I’ve seen the The Weather Channel do some of this, but it could certainly do more.

The Weather Channel has an extraordinarily passionate and talented workforce.  Now – more than ever – it needs to critically look at what it’s doing and how it needs to change to be successful moving ahead.

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