At TV’s Weather Channel, the forecast calls for fewer series about random subjects and more programs about, well, the weather.
In recent years, Weather Channel cast its programming to the winds, running non-fiction series about spearfishermen, people who create artificial reefs… even guys who build skyscrapers. Now the network is finding a ratings boost after making sure its reality series are more strongly tied to what people watch the network for in the first place.
“We are trying to avoid more general unscripted programming that doesn’t have kind of an obvious tie to weather and science,” said David Clark, president of Weather Channel, in an interview.
Look for Weather Channel to get a little nerdy in months to come. “We are going geekier,” he explained. “We sort of have an unbridled enthusiasm for science and weather and weather’s connection to the physical world.” Viewers are interested in seeing the spectacle of the natural world explained to them, he suggested. .
Next year, Weather Channel will unveil the series “Three Scientists Walk Into A Bar,” which will utilize the talents of amateur scientists and meteorologists found on YouTube channels. Weather Channel will also unveil its first historical docudrama, focused on the Donner Party, that ill-fated band of pioneer migrants who became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846 and 1847, sometime in the second half of next year.
The new filter means the second season of “Prospectors,” a non-fiction series about miners seeking valuable gems, will be changed. Look for the program to delve into more science and geology going forward; complete with “pop up” science facts that will appear on screen.
Clark described a network that has put itself through a “course correction.” Weather Channel said its audience between 25 and 54 years of age, the people advertisers seek in news programming increased 17% in the 2013-2014 season, thanks to new shows like “Tornado Alley,” about a zone in the U.S. Great Plains struck by tornadoes several times a year. Viewers in that demo for Weather Channel’s long-form programming have increased in each of the last six quarters, the company said, citing Nielsen.
Other networks face a similar challenge: How to keep viewers tuning in even when the main programming that lures them is no longer as relevant? CNBC has in recent months placed more focus on its primetime lineup, even though the bulk of its programming is related to news of business and the markets that is important from early in the morning to the end of the workday. Many viewers need Weather Channel in the morning to help them plan their day, but the network must also hook them in at other times.
The decision to hone Weather Channel’s focus came in November of 2013, Clark said, after the network had let some of its long-form programming wander into subjects that viewers may not have associated with its core mission. A new chief marketing officer, Scott Safon, had also come on board a few months earlier from Time Warner’s HLN network. Executives soon discovered the maneuver was perceptive: A nasty battle with DirecTV started in January of this year and resulted in Weather Channel being taken off the air for weeks as the satellite distributor railed against Weather’s expansion into reality series that it said had little to do with the network’s main offering: weather reports.
“I don’t think DirecTV caused us to change course, but I think it helped,” Clark said, because viewer feedback favored refining the network’s focus.
The plans for new series don’t mean the network is abandoning its core. Clark said weather coverage, particularly that of major storms, will continue. Even so, he added, “it’s not just presenting the weather. It’s explaining it, pulling it apart. Explaining how it impacts other things.” The TV series, he said, will never edge out weather coverage when events warrant. “We are never going to compromise there,” he noted, “but we also know when things are quiet, our audience prefers this other kind of programming.”