March 22, 2018

A Note to the New Owners of The Weather Channel

The Weather Channel is under new ownership. The Hollywood Reporter published news on Thursday that Entertainment Studios recently closed a nine-figure deal to buy the Atlanta-based weather behemoth away from Comcast, NBC, and the venture capital firms that have owned the network for the past ten years.

Knowing how media companies changing hands tends to lead to changes, I decided to greet the news by writing an open letter to the folks at Entertainment Studios with the hope that they fully understand the power of their new acquisition.

 


Congratulations on your recent purchase. You now own one of the most powerful platforms for safety information and science education in the United States. The Weather Channel has been a cornerstone of the weather community since 1982 and its reach has saved and changed countless lives across its decades on the air.

The spark that energizes The Weather Channel is unlike anything that goes into any other project on television. It's one of a rare group of networks whose sole mission at its inception was to serve its viewers. They're not there just to tell you about the weather. These dedicated meteorologists—some of whom have been in front of the camera longer than I've been alive—are there to explain what's going on and help their audience stay safe. True weather coverage is service journalism in a world that increasingly needs it.

I grew up on The Weather Channel. I was the geeky 8-year-old who set the VCR to record segments of Weather Center during the day so I could watch it after school. I looked up to the meteorologists who explained the weather to me every day. The late Dave Schwartz's quirky sense of humor and friendly presentation style had a lasting effect on my own sense of humor and how I approach writing and speaking to audiences. One of the highlights of my childhood was the day I got to stand in The Weather Channel's parking lot while visiting family in Atlanta. The picture I took that afternoon is still in its frame 18 years later.

My story is far from unique. It would be hard to come across a meteorologist, an aspiring student, or a weather enthusiast of any age in the United States who wasn't inspired by The Weather Channel. That says nothing of the countless lives saved by the network's devoted coverage of severe weather events. I know people who religiously hinge on every word spoken by Dr. Greg Forbes and Carl Parker and Jim Cantore because their voices were the voices folks heard while they took refuge from storms raging around them. The rapport The Weather Channel's experts have built with their viewers is immeasurable in terms of its value. Trust is a crucial component of how people respond to severe weather.

I've written quite a bit about The Weather Channel over the years. Not all of it was flattering. I strongly disagree with the network's winter storm naming practices. It's a betrayal of the network's mission that there's no actual weather on the air between the hours of 8:00 PM and 5:00 AM during the week and only a dozen hours of weather coverage during the weekends. I've lost count of how many times I've wanted to get information about bad weather only to find fat guys peeing in the woods or angry truckers cussing at each other instead of, y'know, the weather.

My criticism of the network comes from my love for what it's done and what it can still do. And there's no other network on television that would engage with critics as frequently and openly as The Weather Channel. The network's winter weather expert had an open exchange with me several years ago on a blog post I wrote criticizing winter storm names. They even allowed—heck, encouraged!—me to speak my mind about my disagreements with the channel when I appeared as Dr. Marshall Shepherd's guest on an October 2015 episode of WxGeeks.

The fear of change with new ownership is well-founded. The Weather Channel's programming took a hard turn toward entertainment when Comcast/NBC/Bain bought the network back in 2008. Ratings are money, after all, and only destructive weather is good for ratings. But things got so bad at one point that Jim Cantore, the undisputed face of the network, felt the need to speak out during a severe weather outbreak in April 2010:


Things have gotten better since then, but Comcast/NBC's ownership left a lasting mark on the network through hours and hours of reality programming each day. The allure of reality programs to keep the lights on and turn a profit is understandable—that's the whole point of running a business, after all—but The Weather Channel spent decades positioning itself as the leader in weather. The network has a unique responsibility as the leading source of weather information on television to continue providing timely information and analysis to its viewers. Any further expansion of entertainment programming will betray this trust.

The smartphone revolution changed the way most of us get our weather information. Most of us now have a personal emergency alert system in our pocket wherever we go. We also have more apps than we know what to do with, and many of those apps pull weather information from questionable sources. But the smartphone revolution isn't all for the best.

Apps alone cannot tell the whole story. Knowing the high and the low and a cute cloud emoji is okay at a glance, but most weather events take more than a passing look to understand what's going on. You can't get the full story on a major snowstorm on the East Coast or tornadoes in Alabama or potential flooding or fires in the West just by looking at two numbers and an emoji.

The weather requires nuance and an expert explanation of what's going on. We need details. Most television and web editors don't care much about the nuances of weather anymore. People are missing key points about weather forecasts and then they get upset when they think the forecast was wrong or they found themselves unprepared for what was to come.

That void is why I started this blog. That's why it's so disheartening to see so much reality programming on The Weather Channel. That's why it's scary to think of what can happen to this important network in the future. There are already too many information vacuums when it comes to the weather. We can't afford one more on television.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Entertainment Studios will do with this crucial platform going forward. I hope they stay true to the network's core mission of keeping its viewers informed and safe.

[Top Image: The Weather Channel's first moment on the air on May 2, 1982, via YouTube]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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