Weather Channels Its Inner Nerd: Uses Science To Attract Viewers, Brands Too

Weather isn’t just about life-and-death events: tornados, hurricanes, floods, etc. Increasingly, it’s about something a bit lower-key, less emotional and more cerebral: science.

On a recent “Weather Center Live” segment on The Weather Channel the talk was about a Typhoon Haima aiming for China, with one analyst noting that storms striking east and southeast Asia have intensified by 12% to 15% over the past 37 years -- with category “4” and “5” storms now two to three times more likely than they were in the 1970s.

“Very warm water temperatures are a part of what is happening there,” says Carl Parker, storm specialist.

Since joining The Weather Channel about a year ago from Dish Network, TWC CEO Dave Shull has overseen a different kind of TV weather network.



New research of the network’s viewers saw a need for a deeper understanding of weather and the opportunity to utilize increasingly complex computer models and higher levels of Big Data to help explain it.

“A light bulb went off,” Shull says. Deeper weather knowledge made sense, he says, because the broader conversation in society now includes the “science” of weather: climate change, large data sets, and space weather.

Shull jettisoned most of TWC’s unscripted TV shows, the kind of undifferentiated, non-weather programs that occupy many general interest cable networks. Starting last November, the network got rid of other tangential programming, including “Fat Guys in the Woods” and “River Prospectors.”

“All wonderful shows,” he says, “but they weren’t tied to the weather.”

Prior to Shull’s arrival, TWC took a hit from critics that its non-weather programming wasn’t working. Cable and satellite operators agreed. DirecTV, for example, dropped TWC in favor of alternative TV weather programming.

“When TV programmers stray from their core brand it usually comes with audience losses,” says Stacey Lynn Schulman, executive vice president-strategy, analytics & research for Katz Media Group. “Getting back to their core could very well be the impetus behind their audience gains.”  

TWC’s viewership has indeed gotten better. In September, the network’s audience reached an all-time high, expanding 41% over the same month last year.

For the entire third quarter, TWC’s live programming gained 35% among 25-54 viewers.

Soon after joining TWC, Shull held meetings with cable and satellite carriers, assuring them: “First, we are back to weather; you know what you buying. Second, we really want to be an innovative partner.”

Shull says that although 75% of all people use their smartphones to get quick weather information on a daily basis, consumers look to TV to get something deeper, and more scientific about weather.

When it comes to traditional TV, 45% of all U.S. homes tune into The Weather Channel once a month, or about eight to nine million people on a daily basis.

“Pretty astonishing reach for a national TV network” that has been around for 34 years, Shull notes, adding, “The challenge was how do we engage them.”

The solution was not just more scientific coverage, but more sophisticated ways of presenting it. The Weather Channel added augmented reality content, including live weather data in 3D formats that showed how tornadoes or hurricanes were developing as weather analysts appeared to be walking “around” the storms while commenting about them.

The format was a big hit with viewers, and marketers too. State Farm signed on to sponsor TWC’s augmented reality/3D segment called “The Lab.”

The Weather Channel continues to draw big crowds with big storms and other extreme weather events. Hurricane Matthew, for example, drew 58 million viewers over five days of TWC’s coverage.

At its peak coverage, TWC attracted 568,000 viewers, roughly double the audience of Fox News Channel (295,000) and CNN (293,000).

And at a time when many media companies talk about emphasizing their user’s experience, TWC cut advertising during peak storm coverage periods to ensure its viewers were getting vital, real-time information.

“Maybe there were some dollars left behind, but we wanted to make sure of our brand promise,” says Shull.

The strategy is paying off with greater demand from advertisers. Since Shull’s arrival, TWC has brought on 25 new advertisers.  

During the 12 months through October 2016, TWC pulled in $165.6 million, up from $134.3 million for the same period a year earlier, according to ad spending data from

Some of the biggest advertisers on the network include, State Farm, Dodge Ram, GEICO, Subaru, Chevrolet, Liberty Mutual, Victoza, and Home Depot.

Looking ahead, Shull notes, “The upfronts were strong and CPMs were up substantially.”

Shull’s refocusing on TWC’s weather programming basics comes as parent The Weather Company was split up. In January, IBM finalized a deal to acquire the data-side of its business, while TWC was put into a partnership of NBCUniversal and private equity firms Bain Capital and The Blackstone Group.

TWC’s long-range forecast includes expanding its traditional TV content to an burgeoning over-the-top marketplace.

Its OTT platform, Local Now, has more of a local TV approach, offering 10- to 15-minute segments updated throughout the day.  Local Now currently has a distribution deal with Sling TV and is pursuing other OTT efforts.

“We are trying to make sure we have a complete multi-platform solution for advertisers,” explains Shull.

Many analysts believe TWC fits well with so-called “skinny” TV digital packages of networks, especially when it comes to price. For example, versus other established cable TV networks, SNL Kagan says The Weather Channel is getting a modest fee of 15 cents per month, per subscriber with traditional pay TV providers.

So far, Sling TV has shown good results for TWC, with 20% of those watching Local Now on a regular basis.

“You want to have a daily reason to come back to the service and live news, weather, traffic, sports is a daily reason to come back,” says Shull.

The Weather Channel will continue focusing on live coverage of tornados, hurricanes and major storms when they happen, but Shull says it is also extending that franchise during calmer periods.

“We are still doing some of it in prime-time when there is no severe weather going on,” he says, noting that the network recently launched “Storm Wranglers,” a series about two guys chasing tornados, with an emphasis on the science of the weather phenomena.

“It’s a little more lean-back environment in the evening,” he says, adding, “We are going to stay true to the brand. We are going to say true to the fans.”
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