PLANK NOVEMBER 2, 2012
It comes as no surprise that The Weather Channel had a very good week. Its website Weather.com saw its strongest two days of web traffic ever on Monday and Tuesday, with a combined 807 million page views. And on TV, The Weather Channel outperformed Fox News on Monday. But during Sandy it was also clearer than ever that the task of broadcasting weather news no longer belongs solely to the weatherman: the most-discussed storm dispatches were the Instagram photos—at an upload rate of ten per second, according to the photo-sharing app—of downed trees and flooded stairwells, the live Tweets from Atlantic City and Red Hook. In recent months The Weather Channel has been publicly struggling to define its brand. Last week it announced that it was cutting 7 percent of its staff and changing its name from The Weather Channel Company to The Weather Company. Several lifelong weathermen have recently departed. “We were awesome for Sandy,” CEO David Kenny said in an interview. “The strategy is to make sure we’re awesome everyday, even if it’s to a smaller group of people.”
So instead of selling the weather as a general interest topic, the company is changing its game. Its new strategy, Kenny says, is to focus on the “43 million self-defined weather enthusiasts” in America. This group includes everyone from trained meteorologists to science-minded teenage boys to the assorted people who obsessively monitor low pressure systems around the country. In some ways The Weather Company is responding to the constant stream of weather news by getting wonkier; this summer, it bought the Weather Underground, an online community that includes 25,000 individuals with personal weather stations at home that transmit data to the weather company data every 2.5 seconds. Kenny plans to refocus programming to appeal to hardcore weather fans. In 2010, a couple of years after NBC Universal and two private equity firms acquired the channel, it began veering off into quasi-reality shows like “Coast Guard Alaska” and “Iceberg Hunters.” Kenny is reversing that shift, bringing The Weather Channel back to its roots. Most of the nearly 80 staff members who were fired were involved with tangential programming, lighter weather-themed entertainment. The channel is no longer trying to “have weather for everyone,” Kenny said.
So in the age of the everyman weatherman, The Weather Company’s strategy is to care less about the everyman. Kenny is done with the old model of dispensing weather news for average people in reliable daily installments. Now regional television stations are becoming more competitive with each other to provide location-specific forecasts. “This whole idea of weather communication is sort of morphing from this idea of delivering to the idea of applying weather information,” said Bill Brune, the head of the Department of Meteorology at Penn State, who has many former students who now work at The Weather Company.
Brune sees a shift in the way weather information travels from source to consumer: businesses and private citizens increasingly have direct access to customized, location specific, real-time information. In the future, your phone might start vibrating five minutes before it’s going to rain in your area. A power company will be told if the sun is going to break through a cloudy sky, prompting an entire neighborhood to switch on the air conditioning at once. “We own the weather,” Kenny said. Now he just needs to protect his base.