The Battle for the Weather Channel Is Over, and the Weather Nerds Won – By Eric Holthaus SEPT. 10 2015 4:26 PM

For years now, there’s been a storm brewing at the Weather Channel.

The forecast for the Weather Channel is increasingly sunny. Here, David Clark, president of the Weather Company's TV division. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The forecast for the Weather Channel is increasingly sunny. Here, David Clark, president of the Weather Company’s TV division.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Its viewers, a fair percentage of whom we can safely stereotype as bored Baby Boomers on vacation in Branson, Missouri, now greatly skew away from the key 18-49 demographic. In recent years, the network has tried to staunch the bleeding by launching a series of “weather-adjacent” reality shows. Diehard viewers revolted, and so did television providers. Since last year, the Weather Channel has been dropped by both DirecTV and Verizon FiOS—both citing the decline of live weather programming in their decisions—and Dish Network may be next. The Weather Channel responded with a harsh war of words, yet continued to air footage of hippos swimming.

More than a year ago, in my very first article for Slate, I spoke with the Weather Company’s CEO, David Kenny, about this troubling trend. At the time, he told me he thought people reacted so strongly to the network’s experiment with reality programming because they “feel like they have part ownership of the Weather Channel. They grew up with it.” Now, Weather Channel executives seem to have finally given in: The weather nerds have emerged victorious.

In a series of sweeping changes on Wednesday, the network has decided to phase out “original nonweather entertainment programming”, commit to changing roles for high-profile weather anchors Sam Champion and Al Roker, and will now feature more frequent on-air deep dives into the science behind the weather.

This week’s announcement means that, with surprising rapidity, the Weather Channel has morphed from aspiring reality-show juggernautback to its scientific roots: all weather, all the time. On a day-to-day basis, the restructuring means shows like Fat Guys in the Woods are getting the ax, and the just-launched, science-heavy new primetime show Weather Underground will become a model for future programming.

As more and more millennials cut the cord and opt out of cable service, the landscape of television is quickly changing. The days of 600-plus channel bundles appear to be numbered, and the economics of the enterprise are fundamentally changing. With this week’s news that Apple has finally created an Internet-native, on-demand TV box it’s not ashamed of, it’s an open question as to how long legacy cable networks can thrive.

At the top of that heap is the Weather Channel. The network and its holding company are for sale, with industry analysts saying its owners may be forced to split the TV channel from the rest of the business—mostly because no one seems to want it.—that bastion of clickbait—seems to be the crown jewel, as well as smaller divisions of the company that specialize in, among other things, mining huge amounts of weather data for trends in retail consumer behavior. Kenny admitted as much in an interview with CNN this week: “we’re now a technology company that owns a TV channel, not a TV company.”

With billions of dollars of economic activity hinging on small-scale weather fluctuations every day, and with climate change throwing an extra wrench into the system, analytics and general meteorological nerdery appears to be the 21st century profit center the Weather Company has its sights set on. If a newly geeky Weather Channel can help inspire a new generation of scientists, all the better.

The Wisdom of the Weather Nerds – Daniel Gross December 2014

How a network of amateurs outdid the National Weather Service

Left: Illustration courtesy Library of Congress. Right: Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Left: Illustration courtesy Library of Congress. Right: Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Weather Underground was founded in 1995—still the dawn of the Internet—by a group of academics at the University of Michigan. “The sole purpose was: Let’s collect a bunch of weather data and get it out to people through a website,” says Jim Menard, senior vice president and general manager of Weather Underground. It’s somewhat ironic: Weather Underground harkens back to the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s, a radical group aimed at blowing things up and subverting the government. In a sign of how times are changing, this Weather Underground is working on improving the information provided by the government and is very much part of the establishment. In 2012, it was acquired by the Weather Company, which also owns the Weather Channel.

An Automated Surface Observing System installation.

Photo courtesy NWS Collection/NOAA

A great deal of weather information was—and is—already available to the public. The whole point of the NWS was to gather data from its observation network and plug it into models that could provide forecasts and then alert the public in case of danger. NWS relies on some 2,000 Automated Surface Observing System units, located mainly at airportsthroughout the country, as well as another 26,000 stations scattered around the world that part of the Meteorological Assimilation Data Ingest System.

That may sound like a lot. But it doesn’t result in anything like blanket coverage. And Weather Underground realized it could improve this system by turning weather into a crowdsourced big-data affair. Boosting the number of physical observations would provide more detailed local weather (like zooming in on Google Earth), and that data would in turn lead to the construction of more effective forecasting models.

In essence, Weather Underground borrowed a page from the hyperlocal all-news cable channels that only cover a particular city—as NY1’s tagline put it, “As local as local news gets.” So it starts with the data that NWS collects and disseminates. Then it enlists the public by encouraging hobbyists to link their personal weather stations to its system. “Instead of relying on the observation point that is at the airport, we let people put a weather station in their backyard and make it easy for them to submit that data to us,” Menard says.

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