Weather Channel wants to attract Weather Underground fans with new show

The Weather Channel is looking to get its geek on.

The cable channel will soon announce the mid-August launch of a daily two-hour live show that taps into the resources and quirky spirit of Weather Underground, the website for meteorological enthusiasts obsessive enough to own personal forecast stations.

The Weather Co., the Weather Channel's parent, acquired Weather Underground in 2012, much to the chagrin of the site's fans who love its grass-roots approach to forecasting. They feared a corporate takeover of the San Francisco-based entity — which grew through a network of devoted followers supplying data from across the country — would make Weather Underground more commercial and less sophisticated. The site was founded by several University of Michigan students in 1993, taking their name from the left-wing radical organization formed in the late 1960s.

But the weather geeks who populate Weather Underground are the viewers the Weather Channel wants to attract with its new show.

The Weather Channel's president, David Clark, told The Times that the Weather Underground program would depart from standard coverage, providing meteorological news and discussion that "will be done in a fun, fast-moving, youthful kind of way." Unlike the channel's slick studio look seen through most of the day, the Weather Underground proceedings will take place in a casual clubhouse atmosphere with a few bar stools, easy chairs and memorabilia.

The program, airing from 3 to 5 p.m. Pacific time, will be hosted by Weather Channel meteorologist and storm chaser Mike Bettes and use the Weather Underground's roster of experts and bloggers. Some of the site's contributors who supply their local data will also be invited to participate.

"They have a network of geeks that may not have a degree in weather, but they love it, and that's good enough for us," said Nora Zimmett, a former CNN producer now in charge of live programming for the Weather Channel.

The Weather Underground show is the channel's latest bid to prove its value in an age when temperatures and forecasts are available in an instant on the Internet and mobile devices. The Weather Co. also owns Weather.com, the most visited Internet site for forecast information.

"The channel was one of the most valuable assets in cable before the iPhone was invented," Zimmett noted.

The privately held company, a consortium of NBCUniversal and private equity groups Blackstone Group and Bain Capital, saw the relevance of its 33-year-old cable channel come into serious question last year during a standoff with DirecTV. The nation's largest subscription video service provider refused to meet demands by the Weather Co. for an increase in fees to carry the Weather Channel, on the grounds that its content was widely available elsewhere. The Weather Channel was off DirecTV for three months before two sides agreed to terms.

The Weather Channel has always touted its role in public safety, providing continuous national coverage of storms and extreme weather. Viewership, which typically averages around 200,000 during the day, rose 11% in the first quarter of 2015 from a year earlier, thanks to brutal winter conditions in much of the U.S. There are even advertisers such as State Farm, Duracell and Home Depot that are ready with spots to air in the channel's disaster coverage.

But getting viewers to feel passionate about the Weather Channel during fair weather is a challenge. It tried in recent years by adding some climate-related reality series that looked as if they could have aired on outlets such as A&E or Discovery, but cut back on that programming as part of its new deal with DirecTV.

Clark believes the Weather Channel is better off trying to connect with the weather enthusiast who wants to get deeper into science and issues related to the physical world.

"Brands that attempt to be Swiss Army knives — that have something for everybody — are failing," he said. "We're in an on-demand world. People can choose the best of everything. It's better to do really well with a passionate audience than it is to be all things to all people, especially in cable."

Clark said the channel has started moving in that direction, adding a half-hour science-oriented show called "WX Geeks." More scientific explanations are being weaved into regular coverage during the day.

Derek Baine, a senior analyst for media research firm SNL Kagan, said the channel is taking a smart course. "News and information has become such a commodity that any channels in this area need to change focus and develop more original programming," he said.

The Weather Underground show will be a true test of whether the channel can become more specialized. The deal to buy Weather Underground got a harsh reception from fans on Twitter. Before putting the brand's name on a TV show, the Weather Co. had to show it was true to its word that it would keep Weather Underground management in place and not alter the tone of the site.

"If we had launched this show back then it would have been rejected by the Weather Underground community," Clark said. "We're going to have to earn the respect of that community. If we do, it's a big success for us."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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