Weather Channel draws ire over colorful coverage
Cable television staple increases revenue while others struggle
Alana Semuels, Mct
BREEZY POINT, N.Y. — The sky is cloudless and blue in this coastal community of bungalows by the sea. But Stephanie Abrams has disaster on her mind.
A meteorologist with the Weather Channel, Abrams is here to co-host the network's morning shows to kick off the start of hurricane season. Her employer is predicting more storms this usual this year. Abrams has come to this town, which was walloped by Hurricane Sandy last year, to warn viewers of potential dangers in the months ahead.
"It only takes one — one Sandy or Katrina in order for the entire U.S. or the entire world to feel that hurt and pain," she said, looking into the camera.
Seconds later, viewers watching the show live on TV saw a scary graphic of a gazebo battered by wind and rain. The station proclaimed itself Hurricane Central.
Bad weather is good business for the Weather Channel.
Helped by a steady string of blizzards, tropical storms, hurricanes and tornadoes, the cable channel has increased its revenue while some other media outlets have struggled. Even when the weather in most of the country is mild, the channel's round-the-clock coverage tends to be heavy with big graphics, capital letters and warnings of what bad weather could be unfolding somewhere, soon, in the United States. Such weather data are now expanding to the Web and cellphones, part of the reason the company changed its name to the Weather Co. from the Weather Channel late last year.
But as storms get fiercer and more frequent, the Weather Channel has come under fire for covering them in a way that seems more entertainment than information.
It decided last year to start giving names to winter storms, a unilateral move that drew ire from meteorologists and the National Weather Service, which is responsible for naming hurricanes.
Its coverage of "Nemo," the snowstorm that blanketed much of the East Coast in February, featured all-caps headlines such as "YOU MUST PREPARE NOW," links that allowed people to warn their friends that bad weather was coming, and graphics of snow and wind that more aptly depicted the Ice Age than a snowstorm.
The gossip site Gawker poked fun at the breathless coverage in an article with the headline "Snow Panic Has Driven Weather.com Completely Insane."
Still, big storms are catnip for advertisers. The fourth quarter of the 2012, which included Sandy and some other big winter storms, was a blockbuster, said Curt Hecht, chief global revenue officer for Weather Co., which is privately held. Weather.com had more page views on the first day of Sandy than NBC.com had for all of the London Olympics, he said.
"It's hard to say, 'Boy, we made a lot of money' when people have lost their homes," Hecht said. "But the reality is Sandy, from a hurricane perspective, was our largest ad monetization event."
The week of Hurricane Sandy, it averaged 780,000 viewers in the heavily viewed 6 to 10 a.m. time slot, more than double the previous week, according to the ad firm Horizon Media.
To keep up with viewer demand for big weather events, the company has added two experts to its severe-weather team over the last year. Technology allows it to air more and more footage from big storms across the U.S. and around the world. It has also beefed up its website, which now has 1.5 billion monthly page views, with feature stories and photo galleries that are only tangentially weather-related ("Before the Bikini: Rare Vintage Beach Photos").
NBC joined two private equity firms to buy the Weather Channel in 2008, and since then weather shows have increasingly featured cross-promotions with other NBC properties, including segments from CNBC. The Weather Channel started airing more reality shows and television programs such as "Deadliest Space Weather" and "Forecasting the End," running 11 series in 2012 and launching 15 this year.
"Forecasting the End," according to promotional materials, is about how "catastrophic weather or natural disasters could possibly cause the end of days." A "Did You Know" section on the show's website warns viewers that "one fiery spark" of methane gas "could ignite global destruction."
That's a big departure from the Weather Channel's early days. The channel was founded in 1982 as a way to bring localized forecasting information to viewers across the country. It pitched itself as a necessity for viewers trying to plan their days who needed to know what kind of weather they might encounter. The channel's new emphasis on what some derisively refer to as "weather porn" has probably alienated some viewers.
"I can't watch the Weather Channel anymore — it's just like Froot Loops fed to you," said Carson Glover, a wannabe meteorologist in New York. "They have pictures of lawn chairs tipped over, it gets people needlessly anxious, and then it just feeds on itself," he said.
But with consumers increasingly turning to weather websites and mobile apps for their daily forecasts, the Weather Channel had to give viewers something different, said Brian Wieser, an analyst with Pivotal Research Group.
"They had to evolve as weather was becoming much more commoditized — you could get forecasts from all different types of sources," he said.
The Weather Co. makes around $350 million a year, a 15 percent jump from five years ago, according to SNL Kagan, a media research company. Meanwhile, its programming expenses have risen 20 percent, to about $165 million, which is relatively low compared with those of other channels.
Longtime viewers seem divided over the company's new direction. On the Weather Channel's Facebook page, some commenters say they are fascinated by promotions for new series, while others urge the channel to return to weather coverage and put aside original programming.
"I am captivated by the excitement & adventurous & scientific explanations of these Historic Events. Love it!!!!" wrote one viewer.
"I am old. I remember when the Weather Channel actually was weather coverage 24/7/365 not this (garbage) they put on now," wrote another.
But executives say that viewers are becoming more interested in weather as they see destruction from storms such as Sandy and Katrina and wonder whether they'll be seeing more extreme events like them soon.
"Weather is kind of a primal force in the world — it's fundamental to everybody," said David Kenny, chairman and chief executive of the Weather Co. "Seeing Mother Nature in action is fundamentally interesting — who doesn't marvel at the power of nature, even though it's terrible, threatening and fear-inducing?"
The company's first goal is to prepare people who are in the line of danger from storms, Kenny said. But it also wants to explain the weather and show its ferocity to viewers.
"There is more extreme weather, there are more unusual patterns, and as we've been able to film it more, it's a more interesting story," he said.
That might be part of the struggle the Weather Co. faces as it moves forward. It may be tough to both inform people about the weather and highlight the dangerous nature of storms without exaggerating their danger to the average viewer.
For instance, a video recently on the website, "Inside Tumbling TWC Video," shows the inside of a Weather Channel truck that got dangerously close to the El Reno tornado in Oklahoma and was rolled around by the wind. Meteorologist Mike Bettes suffered minor injuries from the event. Three storm chasers who had appeared on the Discovery Channel died in the same storm. Though the tornado was more unpredictable than most, many viewers of the Weather Channel were able to stay safe by heeding its warnings and going to a shelter, rather than driving toward the storm. They didn't need up-close footage of the tornado to do so.
"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that certain stations put a guy on the beach to get good visuals, but it's not necessarily the smartest thing to do," said Jeffrey Lazo, an economist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who studies the public's demand for weather forecasts. "It can be hard to separate the hype from the public service part."
Back at Breezy Point, Abrams has tried to inform viewers about how to prepare for hurricanes each time she has been on the air. She interviews the local fire chief about how candles can start fires, encourages people to have flashlights rather than candles, warns inland residents about the dangers of inland flooding and tells coast dwellers to send their family photos away during hurricane season.
She's not trying to scare anyone but wants to prepare them, Abrams said.
"I think it's all in the tone and the way you present it," she said. "A lot of it is in the delivery."
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