The Weather Channel isn’t trying to win you over by spending big on its version of House of Cards. He’s not bidding on The Office the next time he shows up, nor is he interested in NFL games. “Our tent is Mother Nature,” says Nora Zimmett, TWC’s chief content officer. “And she’s always delivering the weather.” TWC launched a dedicated streaming service this month. It’s $2.99 a month or $29.99 a year, and it’s… well, it’s The Weather Channel. The app’s main screen is an always-on stream that replicates exactly what you’d see on cable. That, Zimmett says, is what viewers were really looking for. “We look at our audience and hear, ‘Where can I get The Weather Channel if I don’t want to pay $200 a month for a traditional package?’” she says. Instead of trying to reinvent itself for streaming, TWC opted to broadcast only their channel. By the way, this is a surprisingly new idea in the world of streaming. Most networks have linear TV offerings that specify when and where content is allowed to appear; this is why most shows are only broadcast after they air and some are not broadcast at all. That causes a particularly big problem for particularly timely news, sports and other content. Who is going to broadcast a “live news report” from last week, or even last night? In the meantime, those linear deals continue to be hugely lucrative for those networks, and most aren’t eager to ditch cable (and its carrier fees) a minute sooner than necessary. As a result, you get services like CNN Plus, which tried to create a whole new lineup of live shows instead of just streaming existing ones. And we all know how that went. Linear deals mostly make it impossible to just carry a cable channel. “We’re at a weird inflection point in our industry,” says Zimmett, “where we have one foot on the wire and one foot on the broadcast. And I think every company is still trying to figure out how to keep both parties happy, legally, financially, and everything else in between.” The Weather Channel’s gamble here seems to be that it’s so essential to viewers that it can have both. We’ll see how that pans out: The Weather Channel has had its fair share of rate disputes, and the new streaming service likely won’t make carriers happy. TWC also has another weird corporate situation to contend with: The Weather Channel, as you know it online and on mobile apps, is owned by IBM and is an entirely separate entity from network TV. As a result, you can’t stream the TWC service on mobile or PC, only on TVs (according to the FAQ, it’s available on “Roku, Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, and Xfinity Flex,” with Vizio support planned). in the future). Which is a bummer. However, from a content perspective, The Weather Channel is a surprisingly clever study in how to take a linear TV channel and make it feel more like the Internet. When you open The Weather Channel’s streaming app, you’re taken right into the linear feed, the same one everyone watches across the country. But the blue ticker at the bottom? That’s customized for your local weather, an up-to-date source for everything you need to know right now. You can also call up a full-screen radar to see what’s coming, relegating the live show to a corner of the screen. I spent most of my time in that view, with the local weather on most of the screen and the news and shows on the rest, and all I could think was, “wow, this has the TV in the living room doctor’s waiting list written all over it.”
The Weather Channel app is part custom, part cable channel. Image: The Weather Channel This is the part where you say, Wait, wait, who watches The Weather Channel? My phone tells me if it’s raining. The answer is more people than you think, but the prospects aren’t good: TWC’s overall audience has grown in recent years, but it’s losing ground among younger viewers. Those are precisely the people TWC hopes to reach with its streaming service. And as climate change becomes an increasingly important story, Zimmett says he believes there’s more to the weather than the forecast. “Our superpower is visualizing data,” says Zimmett. She’s not wrong: TWC has long been known for its mixed-reality graphics, including Unreal Engine-powered animation that showed what a nine-foot storm surge from Hurricane Florence might look like. Expect much, much more of that in the future. “At the end of the day, if I feel like my family is in danger from a storm, I don’t really need a 2D map with orange and yellow colors,” says Zimmett. “I want to see someone live in it to show me what’s coming, or to give me a futuristic look at what’s coming to my door.” However, there are many places where The Weather Channel could and could not embrace this type of personalization and interactivity. I watched a few hours of the service as a red tornado warning spun in the bottom right corner, but I couldn’t click it or learn anything more about what was going on. The Weather Channel does have some on-demand content, though it’s mostly short, explainer clips and behind-the-scenes footage. But Zimmett says that she has plans. TWC has original programming, including Uncharted Adventure, which Zimmett proudly noted was recently nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Going forward, TWC plans to make its new shows available on demand on its streaming service 48 hours before they appear on the live network and air. (By the way, I watched a couple of episodes of Uncharted Adventure. It’s a fun show, like a cross between a travel vlog and Man vs. Wild.) The streaming service is already starting to change the way TWC thinks about its linear. programming, too. Zimmett says she was inspired by sports broadcasting as she envisioned the future of weather coverage. Like the NFL RedZone channel: “We’re maybe covering 10 storms at once, and there’s an automatic channel that every time you get close to landfall, we’ll take you there.” Or the new alternative streams for games: “We really look to cover the weather as an event, which we always have, but doing it in a choose-your-own-adventure way that really brings the storm to our users’ doorsteps.” But let’s be clear: the weather is still the star of the show here. In a cynical way, it’s never been better to be The Weather Channel. Climate change is making the weather more volatile and natural disasters more frequent, which is exactly the kind of thing that makes a viewer switch to TWC. Hurricane season is about to begin and NOAA predicts it will be an “above normal” year. Zimmett says TWC is trying to use the opportunity not to traffic in disaster porn — though he could accuse the company of doing that occasionally — he loves horrific storm footage — but to educate people about the science behind climate. “It’s critical to us,” she says. “We can’t have a climate conversation without having a climate conversation.” There really is no chance that The Weather Channel can compete with Netflix, Disney Plus and HBO Max to be your entertainment platform of choice. But maybe it’s not necessary. The company is betting that as the world shifts to streaming, a large number of viewers aren’t looking for something radically different than the TV they’re used to; they just want it to be more convenient and less expensive. It’s both a personalized and shared experience, always on and on-demand, yet just a couple of clicks away. (Once it hits Vizio, Apple TV, and the other platforms, anyway.) And with the weather seemingly getting more outrageous by the day, there will always be something to see.