Riding a Cross-Platform Wind

Weather Channel CEO harnesses power of online and mobile strength
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The media forecast calls for more cross-platform advertising. And putting traditional and digital audiences together is nothing new to Mike Kelly. That’s one reason the climate’s right for the new CEO at The Weather Channel.

Kelly had never worked in TV before being hired last year by the network’s new owners, NBC Universal, Bain Capital and Blackstone Group. But in addition to being one of the oldest and most broadly distributed cable brands, Weather is a powerhouse online and in mobile, and that’s where Kelly fits right in.

“That’s really his DNA,” says John Suhler, founding partner and president of the media-oriented private investment fund Veronis Suhler Stevenson, where Kelly served as advisor for two years. “Mike Kelly has oodles of experience in terms of advertising networks,” and that knowledge helped the investment firm understand new media as it was becoming a more important factor in evaluating media properties. “He’s also a great coach and leader. He’s got a very upbeat personality,” Suhler adds.

Kelly started his career in sales with the Chicago Tribune in 1980. He moved to Time Inc. in 1983, helped launch Entertainment Weekly in 1990 and later became its publisher. Then he left Time Warner to start American Town Network, an early digital company focusing on community-based information. He returned to Time Warner as president of AOL Media Networks from 2004 to 2007, where he built the ad business through acquisitions, growing revenues from $600 million to $2.2 billion.

Before joining The Weather Channel, Kelly served on the board of digital media companies Eyeblaster, Visible World and American Town Network, in addition to his work at Veronis Suhler Stevenson.

Kelly first caught the digital bug while at EW. The magazine was put together digitally on Macs, making it easy to get its content online in 1993. “We realized that if you had a product like Entertainment Weekly that was creating a one-way dialog via the magazine,” he says, “and all of a sudden you had a two-way discussion, it made it very interesting and powerful.”

At one point, Kelly had to leave a Time Warner digital task force meeting and drive to Fairfield, Conn., to register his son for Little League; then he wondered why people couldn’t do that sort of thing online. He put together a business plan for American Town Network that would allow localities to put information on the Web. It was a bit ahead of its time, Kelly says, but still exists today, generating 4 million visitors per month.

Despite his experience in digital media, Kelly was surprised by what he found at The Weather Channel. “They had built such a big franchise online, and were building such a big franchise on mobile while maintaining a big franchise on television,” he says.

His goal is to meld the three, making it easier for advertisers to follow consumers as they move among them: “We’ve gone all-in with cross-platform.”

Kelly is new to the TV side of the business, but he’s learning fast, according to Sharon Scott, executive VP of Peacock Productions and the NBC executive in charge of the relationship with Weather. Working with NBC News and NBC affiliates, he’s changed the way Weather covers events so that instead of having talent standing in front of maps, “We’ve turned it into an immersive, live ‘at the weather, in the weather’ kind of channel,” Scott says.

Kelly is also looking at primetime programming produced by Peacock that balances viewer expectations that the channel will always give them a forecast with the need to have “compelling programming about the weather that’s entertaining,” Scott says. “Mike has been really aggressive in looking at that as a combo platter.”

As to his own full plate, Kelly, who is married with three kids, likes golf and fishes near his family’s house in Wisconsin. Since being approached about the new job, he’s become an avid viewer of the channel, starting first thing in the morning.

“My wife has joked that if she ever divorces me, the grounds for divorce are going to be watching too much Weather Channel,” he says. Every time I walk into the room, I grab the remote and turn it on. And my kids promptly leave the room.”

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette

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