The Weather Channel isn’t trying to convince you by spending a lot of money on its version of House of cards† No bidding The office the next time it comes out it won’t be interested in NFL games either. “Our tent pole is Mother Nature,” said Nora Zimmett, chief content officer of TWC. “And she always delivers.”
TWC launched a dedicated streaming service this month. It costs $2.99 a month or $29.99 a year, and it’s… well, it’s The Weather Channel. The main screen of the app is an always-on stream that replicates exactly what you would see on the cable. That, Zimmett says, is what viewers were actually looking for. “We looked at our audience and heard, ‘Where can I get The Weather Channel if I don’t want to pay $200 a month for a traditional bundle?’” she says. Rather than reinventing itself for streaming, TWC chose to just stream its channel.
By the way, this is a surprisingly new idea in the streaming world. Most networks have linear TV deals that specify when and where content is allowed to appear; that’s why most shows only stream after they air, and some don’t at all. That creates a particularly big problem for news, sports and other particularly topical content. Who’s going to stream a “live news” from last week, or even tonight? Meanwhile, those linear deals continue to be hugely lucrative for those networks, and most aren’t eager to ditch cable (and its associated transportation costs) a minute before they have to. As a result, you get services like CNN Plus, which tried to build an entirely new lineup of live shows instead of simply streaming the existing one. And we all know how that went.
“We’re at a weird turning point in our industry,” Zimmett says, “where we have one foot in cable and one foot in streaming. And I think all companies are still trying to figure out how to keep both parties happy. – legal, financial and everything else in between.” The Weather Channel’s guess here seems to be that it’s so essential to viewers that it can go either way. We’ll see how that plays out: The Weather Channel has had quite a few fees disputes, and the new streaming service probably isn’t going to make the providers happy.
TWC also has another strange business situation to deal with: The Weather Channel as you know it online and in mobile apps is owned by IBM and is completely separate from the TV network. As a result, you can’t stream the TWC service on mobile devices or PCs, only TVs (according to the FAQ, it’s available on “Roku, Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, and Xfinity Flex”, with Vizio support planned) in the future). What a downer.
From a content perspective, however, The Weather Channel is a surprisingly clever study on how to take a linear TV channel and make it feel more internet-y. When you open The Weather Channel’s streaming app, you’ll be taken straight to the linear feed, the same one that everyone across the country is watching. But the blue ticker at the bottom? That’s personalized for your local weather, a continuous feed of everything you need to know right now. You can also summon a full-screen radar to see what’s coming, which will banish the live show to a corner of the screen. I spent most of my time in that view, with local weather on most of the screen and the news and shows on the rest, and all I could think was “boy, here’s Doctor’s Waiting Room TV written all about it.”
This is the part where you say, Wait a minute, who’s watching The Weather Channel? My phone tells me if it’s raining. The answer is more people than you might think, but the outlook isn’t great: TWC’s total viewership has grown in recent years, but is losing ground with younger viewers. Those are exactly the people TWC hopes to reach with its streaming service. And with climate change becoming an increasingly important story, Zimmett says she thinks the weather is more than the forecast.
“Our superpower is visualizing data,” says Zimmett. She’s not wrong: TWC has long been known for its mixed-reality graphics, including the Unreal Engine-powered animation that showed what a Hurricane Florence storm surge might look like. Expect much, much more of that in the future. “Ultimately, if I feel like my family is in danger from a storm, I really don’t need a 2D map with orange and yellow colors,” Zimmett says. “I want to see someone live in it to show me what’s coming, or to give me a futuristic look at what’s on my doorstep.”
However, there are plenty of places where The Weather Channel can and cannot embrace this kind of personalization and interactivity. I spent a few hours watching the service with a red tornado warning spinning in the lower right corner, but couldn’t click on it or learn anything else about what was going on.
The Weather Channel does have some on-demand content, though it’s mostly short clips and behind-the-scenes explanations and footage. But Zimmett says she has plans. TWC does have some original programming, including: Unprecedented adventure, which Zimmett proudly noted was recently nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Going forward, TWC plans to make its new shows available on demand on its streaming service 48 hours before they hit the live network and stream. (I’ve seen a few episodes of Uncharted Adventure, Incidentally. It’s a fun show, like a mix between a travel vlog and Man against game.)
The streaming service is also already beginning to change the way TWC thinks about its linear programming. Zimmett says she was inspired by streaming sports as she ponders the future of weather forecasting. As the NFL’s RedZone channel, “maybe we’ll cover 10 storms at a time, and there’s an automatic channel that we’ll take you there when you get close to landfall.” Or the new game alternative broadcasts: “We really view the weather forecast as an event, which we always have, but do it in a way that you choose your own adventure, which really puts the storm on our users’ doorstep.”
But let’s be clear: the weather is still the star of the show here. In a cynical way, it’s never been better to be The Weather Channel. Climate change makes the weather more volatile and natural disasters more frequent, which is exactly the kind of thing that makes a viewer switch to TWC. Hurricane season is about to begin, and NOAA predicts it will be an “above normal” year. Zimmett says TWC is trying to take the opportunity not to trade disaster porn — although you could accuse the company of doing so occasionally, is doing love horrific storm images – but to educate people about the science behind the weather. “It’s critical to us,” she says. “We can’t have a climate conversation without a weather conversation.”
There’s really no chance The Weather Channel can compete with Netflix, Disney Plus, and HBO Max as your entertainment platform of choice. But maybe it doesn’t have to. The company is betting that as the world shifts to streaming, a large number of viewers aren’t looking for something radically different from the TV they’re used to; they just want it to be more convenient and cheaper. It’s both personalized and a shared experience, both always-on and on-demand, and still just a few clicks away. (If it makes it to Vizio and Apple TV and the other platforms, anyway.) And with the weather seemingly getting more outrageous every day, there’s always something to watch.