Cable Report: Winds of Change

The Weather Channel, now 21, revamps sales efforts, heats up original programming to boost its prime-time fortunes

Whoever said that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it surely didn’t know the folks running The Weather Channel. These days, the 21-year-old stalwart of basic cable is about so much more than just the five-day forecast. With new original programming in prime time and a newly aggressive push to the advertising community that included a lavish presentation—by TWC standards, anyway—during the recent upfront, the channel, owned by privately held Landmark Communications of Norfolk, Va., is hoping to get viewers and marketers to take a fresh look.

The theme of TWC’s party during the upfront sales confab in April, held at the hip Manhattan night spot Splashlight and featuring Grammy-winning, ivory-tinkling pop chanteuse Michelle Branch, said it all: “It’s not about the weather. It’s about life.” Thus, TWC has begun to refashion itself as a channel as much about lifestyles as the day’s weather report. New programming centers around such weather-relevant topics as health, travel and athletics. This, at a time when competition for eyeballs has never been more fierce, and when subscriber levels for basic cable channels like TWC have topped out. (TWC could be seen in 85,346,000 million homes as of this month, a slight increase from 84,950,000 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.)

Most significantly, TWC has plunged into the action-adventure realm, last January launching Storm Stories, airing nightly at 8 o’clock and featuring what the channel calls “the real-life experiences of survivors and rescuers who have battled nature’s most astonishing weather events.” With such edge-of-your-seat offerings, TWC has set out to reach those adventure-loving—and young, demographically appealing—viewers who may have tired of the backstabbers and fortune-hunters duking it out on Survivor and The Amazing Race. (Storm Stories thus far has recounted the close calls of a mother whose baby was ripped from her arms by a twister, a group of skiers buried under an avalanche, and survivors of a shipwreck who fought off man-eating sharks. Now that’s reality TV!)

“People get jaded with the reality TV bandwagon,” says Patrick Scott, TWC executive vp/general manager in charge of programming, operations and distribution. “But these are true stories in a documentary-drama format that are really interesting.”

With programs like the heavily promoted Storm Stories, hosted by TWC’s rugged meteorologist Jim Cantore, the channel, which gets its biggest audience in the mornings, set out to attract more viewers in prime time, and to get those viewers who do watch at night to stick around longer. As Scott explains, “We get a huge sampling [in the evening]—60 percent cume across the month. The idea was simply to provide the huge audience visiting us in prime time more reason to stay than just to get their local forecast.”

The strategy appears to be working: In the 8 o’clock hour, TWC has boosted its household rating by 50 percent, to 0.3, versus a year ago, according to Nielsen. Total audience in the same time period grew 51 percent, to 401,000. More importantly, in the key 18-49 demo, viewership is up 42 percent year over year, to 153,000. Those beefed-up audience figures are all the more impressive considering the expanding universe of cable and satellite channels, not to mention that weather reports now are available in every newspaper, on the Internet, and by phone, fax, beeper and Palm Pilot. (TWC itself provides data through most all of those formats.)

“It’s a smart move. Putting in some long-form programming will help boost the ratings and identify the network as more than just a place for weather forecasts, which are increasingly easy to get,” explains Brad Adgate, svp/research director at Horizon Media.

It wasn’t a given that TWC would find success with original programming. An earlier series, the much more somber Atmospheres, which aired weekly and was co-hosted by Cantore, never caught fire. But having scored a bona fide hit in Storm Stories, TWC hopes to keep the momentum going with other original series, specials and segments.

In April, the channel presented “Storm Week,” a nightly prime-time roster of programs about severe weather. (“Raging Hurricane” and “Supercell” were among the episodes, while other installments got up close and personal with dust storms, mud slides, avalanches and hailstorms.) In May, the channel aired a prime-time special, Twister Tours, following a British couple who got their kicks taking holiday in Tornado Alley during peak storm season.

Last week, to coincide with the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, TWC presented the five-part series “Into the Eye” on its Evening Edition program, airing weeknights 9 to 11. The first installment, titled “Wind Warrior,” featured TWC’s resident hurricane expert Dr. Steve Lyons, demonstrating the effect of hurricane-force winds on the human body by strapping himself inside a wind tunnel.

One year ago, TWC even used its airwaves to toot its own horn with a 20th anniversary special, modestly titled The Weather Channel: The Improbable Rise of a Media Phenomenon. The special coincided with the release of a book by the same name, penned by TWC founder Frank Batten.

And don’t touch that dial: At its upfront event, TWC announced several projects in the pipeline, including a prime-time segment with the working title “Road Crew” that takes viewers to entertainment and sporting events (the Kentucky Derby, NCAA football games, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) where—you guessed it—weather factors into the fun.

A series of specials under the title Forecast Earth, a collaboration between TWC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will examine unpredictable weather patterns that have brought us the likes of El Niño. TWC has also added health and travel reporters to its team of on-air talent—a smart move, considering the wealth of pharmaceutical and travel advertising the channel scores.

Clearly, the programming possibilities are endless. But don’t expect prime-time offerings like Storm Stories to take over the schedule, says Bill Burke, president of The Weather Channel Companies, overseeing TWC, the Web site, TWC Latin America and other multimedia products that put weather reports in newspapers, on the radio and on local TV stations. “We’re not talking about setting aside too many other large blocks,” Burke says. “We have to be careful that we don’t go too long without our bread-and-butter forecasting products, which are what bring people to the network day in and day out.”

Programming head Scott is particularly upbeat about “Road Crew,” which will appear as two-minute, branded interstitials during TWC’s Evening Edition and Weekend Now shows. “It’s something we can do in a lighter, different way for us. It’s a personality-driven segment, unashamedly fun, high-energy.” Scott believes the upbeat spots, even though they’re quick takes, will grab the attention of younger viewers—and attract instant sponsor interest.

Scott says while TWC might be developing unorthodox programming like “Road Crew,” one shouldn’t expect the channel to stray too far from its relatively conservative format. “We can do these things without being schlocky or inappropriate. We’re just not going to go there,” he says.

TWC’s big bash during the upfront, a first for the network, was meant not only to show off the channel’s original programming offerings. It was also a signal that the relatively mature channel was shaking things up on the ad side, with a more aggressive sales push and renewed emphasis on multimedia deals. “We were falling off people’s radar. It was time to get out and tell our story,” Burke explains.

As part of that energized effort, TWC last December brought in ad sales president Lyn Andrews, most recently president/consumer health at WebMD and earlier president of ABC Radio Networks, to head TWC’s newly formed Media Solutions Group, which placed sales functions for TWC and, as well as other TWC platforms, under one roof. The new unit is pushing cross-media packages that encompass, one of the most popular media-related sites on the Internet, attracting 14 million unique users a month.

“ has such a big audience, it’s a force to be reckoned with,” Andrews insists.

The upfront was also a chance to change some longstanding misconceptions about the net, Burke says—for example, that TWC does not attract an upscale audience. The exec points out that one of the channel’s most devoted constituencies is business travelers. “We seemed to turn some light bulbs on,” Burke says of his team’s recent meetings with media buyers. “There are so many networks, so many Web sites, so a lot of it is about being aggressive in telling your story. In the past, maybe we were a little slow about doing that.”

Following the creation of the Media Solutions Group, TWC landed several important, cross-media deals, including a major ad and content-sharing agreement in March with the Scotts Co., makers of lawn and garden products like Miracle-Gro. That arrangement gave Scotts sponsorship of the channel’s lawn and garden report, put the company’s logo on TWC weather maps and created a Scotts-sponsored gardening column on the Web site.

Entertainment advertising has become a major growth category for TWC—and some movie ads make particular sense for the channel. In April, TWC teamed with 20th Century Fox to promote the release of X2: X-Men United. TWC created ads unique to the channel featuring Halle Berry, who plays the weather-controlling character Storm in the flick. (Fittingly, the ads appeared during Storm Stories.) Earlier, TWC did a similar tie-in with Fox for the movie Ice Age.

When it comes to programming and advertising alike, it seems there’s no end to the weather tie-ins. Which is why Burke has that big smile on his face. “We know we have people who come to The Weather Channel with specific lifestyles in mind. They might come to us when their allergies are bad and they want to know the pollen count. A gardener might want to know if there’s going to be frost tonight, or a runner wants to find out what conditions are going to be tomorrow morning. Some people might see our programming as simply ‘the weather,’ but we know we’re reaching people with specific, niche interests. We have to try to figure out ways to be smart about vertical content that appeals to them.”

Tony Case is a contributing writer to Mediaweek.