The Weather Channel is caught in its own nasty storm, beleaguered by sagging ratings and testing a new but unproven programming format. The net's biggest problem: a calm forecast.
"Our version of war is a major landfalling hurricane," says Weather Channel President Patrick Scott, "but, for two years, we haven't had one."
The channel's ratings have been down or flat nearly every month since January 2001. Like other non-news cable networks', its ratings fell sharply after Sept. 11—partly because travel dipped too: Fourth-quarter ratings were off 33% from 2000. The numbers are slowly returning to pre-9/11 levels.
Nice weather's a bummer, too. When severe weather strikes, the Weather Channel draws a crowd. The Jan. 2-3 snowstorm in the Southeast helped it pull a 0.5 average those two days, two-tenths of a point higher than the January average.
But that's the biggest weather story in recent memory. "The Weather Channel has the CNN factor: They are driven by the news they cover," says Initiative Media's Tim Spengler, referring to CNN's traditional ratings hikes when breaking news unfolds. The Weather Channel traditionally draws its highest ratings in the first quarter, when winter weather threatens many parts of the country.
Those who do watch regularly don't stay long. In the morning, Weather Channel's prime time, the average viewer watches for 18 minutes. During evening prime time, that number drops to eight minutes. In contrast, Lifetime holds viewers for 65 minutes in prime time, ESPN about 30 minutes, and Discovery and TLC 16 minutes each.
To draw more viewers, the channel has introduced news shows and Discovery-like documentaries. Gone is the rigid wheel of weather forecasting, replaced with a daypart strategy. There are two branded weather shows in the morning, plus another on weekends. These shows have permanent anchor teams, instead of the channel's rotating army of seemingly interchangeable "on-camera meteorologists."
In August, a prime time weathercast was added from 9 to 11 p.m. Three weeknights at 8 p.m., news magazine Atmospheres
airs. "This is the first year we have all the new shows," says Scott, explaining that he wants to wait a year to see the impact on ratings.
Four documentaries are slated for 2002, and a new half-hour prime time strip series Storm Stories
joins the lineup next January.
"This kind of strategy worked for music networks, which moved away from just showing videos. Look at VH1's success with Behind the Music," said Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast for media buyer Carat USA.
However, that approach failed for CNN, which abandoned ex-President Rick Kaplan's push into magazine shows aimed at securing "appointment viewers."
The Weather Channel isn't going to pick up viewers by organic growth; it's almost fully distributed in 84 million homes. If it can hold viewers longer, ratings could increase. Buyers say the new strategy could accomplish that. "They need a program or stunt that catches fire and generates some press. Then you'll see them come out of the 0.3 [rating]," said Horizon Media's Executive Vice President/Director of National Broadcast Aaron Cohen.
Last June's Storm Week stunt produced a rare ratings spike, a 0.7 average for four nights. It helped the net earn a 0.4 average for the month, its highest for the year.
The Weather Channel's originals may resemble some Discovery Channel and TLC fare, but advertisers may be interested in such alternatives. Science- and nature-related programming, media buyers note, usually attract a desirable upscale, educated viewer.
The Weather Channel also is venturing into more partnerships. Its meteorologists report for Comcast regional news channel CN8. Last month, it became the official forecaster for USA Today
and is exploring affiliations with Gannett's 22 local TV stations. The first test will be with Gannett NBC affiliate WXIA-TV Atlanta. The station will provide video forecasts that will air during the Weather Channel's regional weather updates. In exchange, the Weather Channel makes its staffers and feeds available.
"I don't imagine us ever syndicating weather reports; that would be cannibalizing our audience," he said. "This is the exact opposite. It strengthens our local product."