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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/14/2008

Freedman: Sale May Improve The Weather Channel

By Andrew Freedman

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 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.

By Andrew Freedman  | April 14, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Freedman, Media, News & Notes  
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"....and by some elderly people who feel soothed by the constant repetition of meteorological phrases and local forecast music."

I don't want to have old people surrounding my car in a Rosty-like rage trying to flip it, but this is dead on. I have several great aunts and uncles whose TVs seem to never stray from TWC. Either that, or they turn it on right before people come to visit and then laugh at us suckers afterwards when they go back to watching "Perry Mason," "Trapper John," and "Golden Girls" reruns.

Posted by: BobT | April 14, 2008 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I think i will miss the old weather channel if it changes to a weather news and science channel rather than a weather forecasting channel. i like being able to tune in and see the weather and often get annoyed when there are programs that take more than a few minutes such as forecast earth, storm stories, etc. I sometimes like these programs but if there are too many of them and the weather channel turns into a weather channel/discovery channel hybrid, i might get annoyed.

Posted by: jf | April 14, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Can't find the website, but there's a service rating forecast accuracy which gives the top numbers to TWC, followed closely by AccuWeather in the low eighty percent range. By comparison, NWS, (supposedly the "weather experts"!) forecasts with an accuracy somewhere in the low-to-mid sixty percent range.

Perhaps it's time to re-introduce ex-Senator Santorum's bill in Congress (just kidding!)

Posted by: El Bombo | April 14, 2008 4:43 PM | Report abuse

I can honestly say that I haven't turned on the Weather Channel since the last time a hurricane threatened the United States. How long ago was that? I used to have it on all of the time until they decided to be the Discovery Channel

Posted by: JT | April 14, 2008 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Just can't seem to write a single article without mentioning the "Global" climate change farce, can you? How can any "weatherman" who preaches the unproven Global warming myth as scientific fact be taken seriously for anything they say? The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Posted by: Nero | April 14, 2008 8:10 PM | Report abuse

"The Weather Channel". What does that intro. inply? You tune to the Weather Channel for weather info. When John Coleman founded the Weather Channel, he understond this. Recently the Weather Channel has lost credibility and audience because it has lost it's focus and mission toward it's viability, partly because John Coleman is no longer in control.

To compete with FOX,CNN,CBS, ABC, NBC, is the height of stupidity.

The quest of ever increasing Corporate Profits has ruined what was once was the Weather Channel.

Why do you think it is on the Auction Block???

Instead of nonsense about what may occur 100 years into the future, most potential viewers are interested in what will occur 12 hrs. into the future resulting from developments upstream!!

Posted by: Augusta Jim | April 14, 2008 8:13 PM | Report abuse

I think TWC has taken a shift too far away from forecasting weather. I won't go into this in detail, as the folks above me have already done this.

Personally, I also find the Weather Channel's website annoying, hard to use, and slow. They could use a lot of improvement there.

Posted by: Model Monkey | April 14, 2008 8:30 PM | Report abuse

Augusta Jim: One factual correction from your response is that John Coleman was not in control of TWC for the vast majority of its existence, having severed ties with the company only a year or two into the venture. So crediting him with steering TWC on the correct course, only to have it come off the rails upon his departure, is inaccurate.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 14, 2008 8:56 PM | Report abuse

Andrew: Back in the spring of 1982, Frank Batten of Landmark listened to the wisdom of John Coleman, therefore the Weather Channel was founded on Coleman's ideas. The Weather Channel prospered for years under this guidance. During the past 25 years after Coleman's departure, TWC has gradually evolved toward failure.

The coup-de-grace has occurred since 2006 with a complete default to the "Global Warming Controversy" and other special interest content that the average person does not wish to access, when tuning to TWC.

TWC can persist and completely fail, or under new ownership, revert to the wisdom of it's founding and try to regain lost market share.

The advent of the "Internet" has changed the game completely.

Posted by: Augusta Jim | April 14, 2008 9:33 PM | Report abuse

I prefer an all-weather Weather Channel. All I want is the forecast. I don't care about deadly lightning in Oklahoma, no offense.

Posted by: Peter [Bethesda] | April 14, 2008 10:41 PM | Report abuse

Augusta Jim: So you're saying that by airing a weekly program on global climate change on the weekends, during one of the least-watched time slots available to it, TWC has self-destructed? That doesn't make sense. I understand your view that TWC shouldn't cover climate change, although I vehemently disagree with that view. Climate change coverage is not special interest coverage, and it's not coverage of some "controversy." It's coverage of a scientific issue with many uncertainties, just as the weather involves knowns and unknowns. TWC does not have a special interest agenda, as far as I can tell.

Overall I've noticed a big backlash on online message boards and other blogs to recent programming decisions that TWC has made. But at the same time, isn't a station that just shows the weather forecast, like Peter in Bethesda would prefer, just a duplication of a gazillion online sites? I think I disagree with the commenters here on what should constitute an "all-weather Weather Channel." My definition is more expansive. At the same time, I don't want to see any more episodes of "Storm Stories" or "It Could Happen Tomorrow." I have enough of a tough time already avoiding "Head On" commercials. We'll see what happens as the sale moves forward.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 15, 2008 12:05 AM | Report abuse

I like having TWC on in hotel rooms as white noise while I'm traveling. And as a sleep aid. Can be very soothing, zzzz. That's about it.

Posted by: tinkerbelle | April 15, 2008 7:23 AM | Report abuse

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