Years ago, The Learning Channel dumped learning in favor of Honey Boo Boo and a family led by a couple that doesn’t know how to just sit and talk at night. The History Channel slowly went from history to Hitler to the Harrisons, and The Weather Channel—once a force so powerful in America that it was the authority on weather—followed that same misguided path, eschewing the perpetual map briefings that turned them into a powerhouse to begin airing reality programs about pudgy beards, people anxiously ogling at rocks, and the foibles of a buncha rushin’, cussin’ truckers.
Though they weren’t the first cable network to stray away from the theme that’s in their very name, it seems that they’re going to be the first network to come back home to focus on what made them big to begin with.
Brian Stelter over at CNN reports that The Weather Channel is undergoing a “major shake-up” that involves show cancellations, a 3% layoff, and most importantly, a renewed focus on what they do best: the weather.
Wake Up On Your Own From Now On
Both Al Roker and Sam Champion have seen their morning shows cancelled** in the past week, with the last airings for each scheduled within the next month or two. Roker’s Wake Up With Al and Champion’s America’s Morning Headquarters were somewhat analogous to the morning shows you’d catch on the big networks, with weather forecasts and information interspersed with lifestyle/human interest stories.
**Correction: David Clark, President of The Weather Channel, informed me after the publication of this post that America’s Morning Headquarters is not cancelled. The show will continue in its morning slot without Sam Champion, who will go on to work in primetime and other roles.
The cancellation of Wake Up With Al and Champion moving on from AMHQ isn’t too much of a surprise. Despite the fanfare that surrounded Champion’s March 2014 arrival from ABC, America’s Morning Headquarters has struggled to attract viewers for most of its run. Wake Up With Al lasted considerably longer—more than six years, in fact—but Roker’s popularity is so inextricably linked to his ongoing role at NBC’s Today Show that his star power never seemed to fully transfer over to his program on The Weather Channel.
While most news stories will cover the fact that Sam Champion and Al Roker lost their shows, the biggest story buried in the news of the shake-up is that The Weather Channel plans to complete its shift back to a near-complete focus on the weather, a long-awaited move both in the weather community and among the general viewing public that just wants to know tomorrow’s forecast.
When the network began back in May 1982, the premise was simple: weather, whenever you want it. Whether you were on your lunch break or awake at 2:30 AM with heartburn, you could flip to The Weather Channel and see a friendly, familiar face both presenting and explaining the day’s weather forecast.
This formula worked for years, especially during the channel’s peak in the 1990s, when it was the best thing on television. The Weather Channel’s slow decline in popularity began as the internet rose, and when smartphones took off, the network was faced with its first “adapt or die” moment.
The television channel’s new direction was sealed in the late 2000s when NBC Universal—along with several venture capital firms—purchased The Weather Channel and shook things up. The network got rid of numerous on-camera meteorologists who had been there for decades in a mass firing mournfully referred to as “The Purge.” Many of the very men and women who built the network’s image and lent the company decades of integrity suddenly found themselves out of a career, either for financial reasons (you build up a good paycheck working in TV for 20+ years), or, though they’ll never admit it, simply because they wanted to bring in fresh (read: younger) faces.
That was just the beginning.
Scruffy Huffing Woodsfest
The battle for the soul of The Weather Channel comes down to the usual executive vs. editorial clash that any media company endures. Business Weather Channel naturally has different goals from Weather Weather Channel. The former is geared toward turning a profit, while the latter is expected to help deliver that profit by straddling a fine line to accurately and effectively relay weather information in a way that doesn’t make people fall asleep or turn off the TV.
How do they pay the bills and turn that profit? Reality programs. It’s a lose-lose situation—they hurt their credibility and anger longtime fans by airing shows like Scruffy Huffing Woodsfest over live weather coverage, but it makes more financial sense to tone down live weather coverage—with a shelf life of, say, two hours—in favor of reality programming, which has lower overall costs, attracts more eyes, and has the shelf life of a mythical Twinkie.
The Weather Channel’s first long-form program was Storm Stories, which was a pretty good fit for the network at the time. Over the next couple of years, they would add shows like Full Force Nature and It Could Happen Tomorrow before the sale to NBC Universal; both of these were good, weather-related programs that filled the gaps during slow weather days or when viewership was traditionally low.
In 2009, a year after NBC Universal took over the company, they made the decision to begin airing weather-themed movies on Friday nights, a shocking move at the time that was (correctly) called-out by viewers as a cheap ratings grab.
The movies didn’t last very long. During a severe weather outbreak on April 30, 2010, the network decided air a movie as scheduled instead of using the slot for live coverage of a tornado outbreak in the central United States. Understandably angered by this decision, Jim Cantore publicly and loudly criticized his own network for what was likely the first (and only) time since he started there in the 1980s.
TWC is NOT doing movie night tonight. They are staying LIVE to cover SVR WX Outbreak.— Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) April 30, 2010
I want to apollogize to all of you. I was SEVERELY mislead. Was told we were bagging the "movie" to do what this network was created for.— Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) May 1, 2010
The movies ended the following month, but the reality shows were just getting started.
The Weather Channel is acutely aware of how much longtime viewers are annoyed by the network’s devotion to reality programming, and if they weren’t before, DirecTV sure as hell made them aware of it.
The satellite carrier replaced The Weather Channel with Denver-based competitor WeatherNation for a couple of months back in 2014 during a carriage dispute over the amount of fees The Weather Channel demanded in order for their network to appear on DirecTV’s lineup.
In the year or two before its dispute, The Weather Channel seemed to devote an obscene amount of time to non-weather programming. DirecTV CEO Mike White directly referenced this everything-but-weather era as a major reason they were holding out on a contract renewal:
A growing number of customers have complained that The Weather Channel devotes 40% of its programming day to reality shows, preempting the hard weather news they really want. Why should you pay for 100% weather information, and only receive it 60% of the time?
The jabs between the two companies got worse from there.
After a long and ugly public relations battle, The Weather Channel ultimately relented, agreeing to halve the amount of time it devotes to weather-adjacent programming. The network now spends 62.5% of the weekday—15 out of 24 hours—airing weather programming, beginning with (for now) Wake Up With Al at 5:00 AM and ending with Weather Underground at 8:00 PM Eastern.
A New Era (?)
The first positive step The Weather Channel made on the long corrective arc back to its original focus was to hire Dr. Marshall Shepherd—former president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the atmospheric sciences department at the University of Georgia—to host a Sunday afternoon talk show called Weather Geeks, commonly stylized as WxGeeks.
WxGeeks is like the weather version of Tim Russert’s time at Meet the Press; it’s an incredible show that does its best to get deep into issues that affect the weather community and, subsequently, the global community at large. Over the past year, Dr. Shepherd and his dozens of guests have discussed topics like tornado sirens, the polar vortex, the role of social media in weather communication, and President Obama’s science agenda.
I say WxGeeks “does its best” to dive into these issues because the show limited to 30 minutes, which is more like 15 minutes when you account for several breaks for commercials and the Local on the 8s. That’s hardly enough time for introductions, let alone a serious, illuminating discussion on big topics of the day. The program needs to be expanded to 45 minutes (or, better yet, an hour) to really reach its full potential.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the network took another leap toward its renewed weather geek identity with the premiere of Weather Underground, or WUTV for short, a show named after the wildly popular weather observation/forecast website it obtained back in 2012.
The two-hour program stars meteorologists Mike Bettes and Sarah Dillingham, wunderground.com founder Dr. Jeff Masters, as well as a cadre of other experts and meteorologists employed by both the network and the website.
A replacement show for Wake Up With Al, as well as those time slots presumably to be vacated by reality programming, have yet to be announced.
[Top Image & FGitW: The Weather Company | Video: The Weather Channel | WxGeeks Photo: author | Corrected to reflect that AMHQ is not canceled, but it will continue without Sam Champion while he moves on to another role with TWC. | Edited to remove a sentence fragment missed on proofreading and to correct the spelling of Brian Stelter’s last name.]