The business of weather has changed dramatically since former WCCO Minneapolis chief meteorologist Paul Douglas exited the station world in 2008. An entrepreneur with a handful of multi-million-dollar weather-tech startups to his credit, Douglas launched the syndicated weather outfit WeatherNation a few months after he was laid off, with the aim of providing weather content to stations and other media outlets across the country.
He envisioned a large quantity of his business coming from supplying weather talent remotely from his Twin Cities headquarters for stations that perhaps had downsized. But as media consumption habits have changed, with users increasingly accessing weather information when and how they want it on their iPhones and Droids, WeatherNation is more in tune with products for people on the go.
From his vantage point, Douglas suggests that the golden age of tune-in-at-11 TV weather has faded. “The appointment-viewing paradigm is in peril,” he says. “For big weather events, consumers continue to gravitate to trusted sources [on television]. But for the other 320 days of the year, they want instant gratification and convenience.”
Weather is an enormous driver of traffic to local news. However, a small but vocal group of industry watchers say viewers, with a world of sophisticated weather content at their fingertips, are increasingly unwilling to sit through the bulk of their late newscast—and its multiple teases—to find out if they need to bring an umbrella to work the next day.
“Weather is the only part of journalism I know where you get away with not giving people the lead. We know what the audience wants, and we have to give it to them,” says Steve Safran, senior VP of Media 2.0 at TV consultancy Audience Research & Development. Stringing along viewers is good for short-term ratings wins, he adds, “But it's myopic in the long term.”
LOCAL TV'S BREAD AND BUTTER
Asking station bosses to rethink what's long been a vital part of their newscast is no small order. An informal panel of 20 local TV executives revealed a nearly unanimous belief that weather—both severe and uneventful—would continue to draw hordes of viewers even after the digital generation comes of news-viewing age. Only a few suggested it's worth planning for the day when those conditioned to get their weather at appointed times on television die off, replaced by a generation raised on cable news, Weather.com and smartphones—who would no sooner wait for a forecast in late news than they'd wait for sports scores.
While stations have been paring down their on-air sports for years, they've been keeping their weather coverage consistent, and in many cases expanding it with quick meteorologist reports in the A-block. Station managers say weather has universal appeal among viewers—something the local sports teams cannot claim. “No other story affects more people locally,” says WHEC Rochester VP/GM Arnold Klinsky.
Station execs say owning weather remains a top priority. “It remains the No. 1 reason why people watch local TV,” says SmithGeiger Senior VP Mark Toney. “It always has been, and I don't see that changing.”
Despite the prodigious array of digital offerings, general managers and news directors say people still want to get the forecast from a local meteorologist they trust. A Frank N. Magid study saw 54% of news viewers 25-54 cite a station or local TV meteorologist as their most trusted source of weather information, more than triple those who said the Weather Channel (17%) or the Web (11%).
“I know it's old fashioned, but people still want somebody to tell you they're watching out for you,” says WCDB Charleston VP/General Manager Rick Lipps. “Your computer can't tell you that, and your phone can't tell you that.”
Fueling their bullishness on TV weather is the fact that storm stories have never had a bigger media presence, with events such as Hurricane Katrina, California's wildfires, and various tsunamis and earthquakes around the world making for riveting breaking news. “[Events] like Katrina show us that the impact of weather can be quite extraordinary,” says Weather Channel CEO Michael Kelly. “You have to be committed to weather because weather has become a much bigger story than ever before.”
Many execs believe weather talent has largely been spared the drastic layoffs occurring in local TV the last few years—at least relative to the rest of the newsroom. “People are very reluctant to tinker with weather,” says Bright House VP of Corporate News and Local Programming Elliott Wiser, who oversees Florida news channels Bay News 9 and News 13. “It's been something of an oasis in a desert of budget cuts.”
Local TV will need the resources, because the competition has never been tougher. In October, Verizon's pay TV service FiOS launched a WeatherBug Widget that offers customized weather reports on television. And Weather Channel picked up serious synergistic might when NBC acquired it in 2008. It gained 1.5 million unique visitors to its digital properties, such as Weather.com and a desktop widget, between September 2007 and September 2009, jumping from 34.2 million to 35.7 million. And its 4.63 billion page views this year through September are a major boost over the 3.83 billion from January to September 2007. Weather Channel also has 21 million mobile users to date.
The public's online appetite for weather cannot be overstated. According to a Scarborough Research study, 36.5% of adults went to the Internet for weather info in the past month, behind only e-mail (62.6%) and ahead of news (33.6%). But stations have to ramp up their digital offerings to compete in the 24/7 weather arena. “We are constantly working on weather strategies to develop both online and mobile strategies for our television clients,” says Magid Institute VP Pete Seyfer. “They must be online and mobile 24/7 in a local presence for their viewers who want up-to-the-minute forecasts.”
The Post-Newsweek stations look to take the fight to Weather.com with JustWeather.com—which offers not only local forecasts, but wind speed, interactive radar and even a “haircast” to tell you what the conditions might do to your 'do. WTVT Tampa has logged some 15 million page views on its MyFoxHurricane.com microsite since June, while its Hurricane iPhone app has gotten 3,000 takers at $3.99 a pop.
Stations such as KHOU Houston marry the trusted voice of local weather knowledge and mobile media with WeatherCall automated phone calls about severe weather from the chief meteorologist; to date, more than 6,200 KHOU users have paid $6.95 for a year's worth of calls.
A FIGHT THAT'S THEIRS TO LOSE
With their brands established in the market over the last half century, station managers say the fight for second- and third-screen eyeballs is theirs to lose. “It's up to us to be the place people go for weather on the Web and cellphones,” says WXIX Cincinnati VP/General Manager Bill Lanesey.
While some broadcasters are optimistic that the younger generation will assume their parents' viewing habits once they come of age, others say it's preposterous to think there will always be a sizable audience willing to stay up through most of the late news to get the forecast.
WeatherNation CEO Douglas, who has watched the category's evolution more closely than most, likens appointment weather viewing to an old AM radio: trusted, iconic and hopelessly archaic. He forecasts a future with weather content tailored to the user and sent to his or her smartphone, not what he calls the “glorified PowerPoint presentation” of the traditional on-air forecast. “We can personalize weather and make it more relevant to people's lives—it's not one size fits all,” Douglas says. “The challenge ahead of us presents incredible opportunity.”