Friday, December 22, 2000
New York The people who run The Weather Channel faced a couple of major decisions during the past few years that had nothing to do with whether or not to carry an umbrella to work.
Instead, both struck at the very heart of what a television network is supposed to be.
Decision One: Do you risk alienating loyal viewers of perhaps the most regimented schedule on TV with new programming designed to get people to lay off the remote control for a while?
Decision Two: Does a television network eagerly invest in services for people who are not watching television? The answers are "yes" on both counts, but they weren't easy in coming.
New to The Weather Channel's schedule this season is "Atmospheres," an hour-long newsmagazine (Wednesdays at 7 p.m. CST). Hosts Jim Cantore and Mishelle Michaels introduce weather-related stories like a husband and wife storm-chasing team, a surf forecaster who watches the weather in search of the perfect wave, and how skyscrapers are designed to withstand the wind.
It's the type of thing most television executives wouldn't think twice about doing. But it was a very big deal at The Weather Channel.
The network's schedule is intentionally predictable; longtime viewers know if they tune in at a certain time each hour, every hour, they'll see their local forecast, or a report on tropical storms, or the weekend outlook.
There are some variations ï¿½ more time spent in the morning helping parents decide whether to bundle up their children for school, for instance ï¿½ but they're minor.
The schedule rewards loyalty, but also encourages viewers to quickly surf away to another channel when they've got what they need. That's no good, since a network's financial success depends on keeping viewers long enough to watch the commercials. Networks need longer shows to keep viewers from grazing; it's why you rarely see videos anymore on MTV or VH1.
An average viewer on The Weather Channel stays there for 12 minutes. That's not bad, but the network's executives know the figure is inflated by what are politely called the "weather-involved," or geeks who watch the weather for hours on end.
"Atmospheres" was introduced to keep people tuned in for a full hour. While The Weather Channel is touting the series, its executives are carefully monitoring whether it's too much of a shock to loyal fans.
So far, so good. Decker Anstrom, The Weather Channel's president and CEO, said ratings are better than they were before the show started. Focus groups of viewers report little aggravation, he said.
"They passionately care about what we're doing so it does add a little bit of caution," he said. "You don't want to walk away from or in any way rupture the trust that people have come to have."
While The Weather Channel has been cautious, competitors like The Discovery Channel and TLC have succeeded with programming about dramatic weather that Anstrom believes should be on his channel.
Next year another hour-long show will be introduced at 7 p.m. Eventually, Anstrom wants a different program every night of the week in that slot.
"The Weather Channel has done a wonderful job in terms of building a relationship with consumers," he said.
"If you can get them a little more involved, you can deepen that relationship."