Big storms are big business for the weather channel

July 27, 2011

Linda Holmes

(NPR/Frederick M. Brown)
Weather Channel executives during the 2011 Summer TCA Tour Wednesday.

It's a little strange hearing a rundown of a television network's big and successful year that talks not only about audience growth, but also about deadly hurricanes, crippling drought, and a major heat wave. The Weather Channel isn't glad anyone is suffering, obviously, but it's been pretty good business for them. They aren't afraid to tell you how well they did during the Groundhog Day winter storm, or during the tornado in Joplin, Missouri. Fifty million people watched The Weather Channel during the week of the Joplin tornado, they'll tell you.

Speaking to television critics on Wednesday, the Weather Channel personnel — executive Bob Walker, on-air meteorologists Jim Cantore and Stephanie Abrams, and hurricane expert Dr. Rick Knabb — stressed the expansion of content across platforms and the importance of what they do and everything you hear about from everybody else, but it all comes down to the fact that weather is one of those things where people don't necessarily have the option of losing interest. Walker pointed out late in the session that the channel's data indicates that 90 percent of the U.S. population checks the weather in one way or another every day. Every day.

They walk a fine line, because they don't want to be tagged as irresponsible or exploitative. In fact, Abrams showed a little irritation talking about how she doesn't like to be lumped in with fools (my word, not hers) who, for instance, are trying to get the most dramatic shot by "standing on the seawall in Galveston when there's a storm coming ashore." (Galveston and that sea wall came up again later during a similar disclaiming of bad tactics. One sure does get the feeling that the Weather Channel people were particularly appalled by something that somebody at some network shot there.) At the same time, they know that storm coverage sucks in eyeballs in a way that maps don't; that it has universal appeal.

It's an odd business. It's a mix of the most mundane and utilitarian of content — it's going to rain; bring an umbrella — and the most dramatic and frightening — get in the basement, WE'RE SERIOUS, YOU COULD DIE. They build their reputation, in part, on their ubiquity in the in-between times. Their mobile app has been downloaded 40 million times, and that's not just so people can watch tornado coverage and snowstorm coverage. Ninety percent of the population doesn't watch disaster coverage every day; they check the weather every day.

Every network that comes here has an interest in giving the people what they want, and this one is no different. They openly acknowledge that earthquakes aren't really weather, and tsunamis aren't really weather, but they covered the earthquake in Haiti and prepared for possible tsunamis in Hawaii after the earthquakes in Japan simply because their customers expected them to and believed they were equipped to. They've expanded their definition of the mission to include, in effect, "weather plus other important naturally occurring events."

And — like, it seems, absolutely everybody else on cable — they've got a foot in reality shows. Just today, they announced that they'll be airing Coast Guard: Alaska, a show that seems to be in the great unscripted-TV tradition of Burly Men Doing Important Sweaty Work.

Of course, like everyone, they've got things they really don't want to be part of, and one of those is a discussion of whether humans contribute to climate change, which they were asked about in the first three questions of the day. Yes, the entire panel agreed, the climate is changing. But as to whether any of that has anything to do with human beings, they take no position. There are lots of factors, they say. We're still learning.

Earthquakes? Yes. Tsunamis? They're on it. Hot-button political issues like a yes or no on whether humans are contributing to climate change? No, thanks. And don't ask them about whether we're heading for another Ice Age, either — somebody tried it, and it led to the explanation of something sort of interesting: that is a question for climatologists (who study climate over the very, very long haul), not meteorologists (who study the climate over the next 90 days or so).

You learn something new every day.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.