What Has Happened to the Weather Channel?

What's to come?
Jan. 23 2014 11:30 AM

Rainy Days and Reality Shows Always Get Me Down

A longtime Weather Channel fan talks to the network’s president about its new direction.

(Continued from Page 1)

Holthaus: The Weather Channel’s decision to name winter storms has been controversial. I get it—there’s a certain appeal to knowing what to call the beast of Mother Nature that just ruined your commute home. But some say unilateral winter storm naming is an arrogant ratings grab and not really necessary scientifically. The National Weather Service has refused to adopt the practice. Where do storm names go from here?

140123_FT_WinterStormAnus
These winter storm names are getting sillier and sillier.

Courtesy of Brian Kargus

Kenny: I’m a nerd, and we’ve seen both types of responses to our storm names. We’ve found that the positive feedback has outweighed the negative.

The decision to name a storm is absolutely scientifically based, and the decision is made by Tom Niziol, Stu Ostro, and Peter Neilley, scientists with decades of experience. At least 30 million people must be impacted, and NWS watches and warnings must be likely to happen. We’re not trying to front-run the National Weather Service.

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Now, we’ve launched a forum at the American Meteorological Society to discuss winter storm naming. That’s where we all belong. I’d love us all there, discussing this specific question. 

What we do know is the most recent winter storms created an enormous amount of social communication. The fact that you can aggregate [all the impacts of] a storm like “Janus” is a very powerful communications tool. This week, the Navy used it, local officials used it. This is not a ratings thing, because then we’d make it proprietary. We don’t want to own these names. I hope some day it gets done by someone other than us, but I also think it’s worth it for us to continue to innovate.

This year I feel much better that people are picking it up. It gets people more interested in weather, and that’s a good thing.

Holthaus: On climate change, I know you were the only network to broadcast in full the president’s speech last summer announcing the White House’s Climate Action Plan. But for some reason, there seems to be the impression, at least on Twitter, that the Weather Channel isn’t doing much in the way of climate coverage.

Kenny: I hope they’ll watch more. We’re doing it well, and we’re doing it scientifically.

This week, I was supposed to be speaking in Davos but had to cancel due to the situation with DirecTV. DirecTV has so unfairly yanked us away from our viewers, which reduces our ability to speak about this important issue in the future. We need to help get the rest of the world to stand up. The science is clear, but science takes time to understand. We’ve got billions of people on the planet, trying to understand how it works.

I don’t think there’s a place for politics on the Weather Channel. When you jump to the politics, you’re really doing a disservice. [Talking about climate change] will work better when more people are talking about the scientific linkage and not talking about the politics. We’re part of a broader fabric; [it] would be good if we all worked together on this. I view us as scientific journalists.

Holthaus: You just spoke of the billions of people on the planet, trying to understand weather and climate. As you can tell, I’m a big fan of Twitter and crowdsourcing content on sunny days from around the world. What would you imagine the hip, 21st century, Internet version of TWC to be like? Let the average person say what weather means to them? Seems like the Weather Channel might do well internationally, as a partner with meteorology services around the world.

Kenny: We are absolutely committed to understanding the role of crowds in observation and validation of weather data. That’s one of the big reasons we brought the Weather Underground on board. We love its network of personal weather stations. That data has made our models better. We’d love to expand the global network of personal weather stations, especially in the Southern Hemisphere and in poorer nations. But we have to make sure it’s good data.

We’re starting to experiment with mobile apps that allow our users to tell us if the forecast is accurate or not, to try to use that information to make our forecasts even better. That’s important both on the science and the storytelling. We’ve tried to make more room for our viewers themselves on air.

What we like about social media is that it gives an instant pulse on what people are experiencing. If we can find ways to help Twitter with nowcasting, I think that would be a naturally fitting partnership.

Holthaus: Anything else?

Kenny: You know, what’s interesting about these questions is that it’s clear that people, even if they’re upset, feel like they have part ownership of the Weather Channel. They grew up with it. Hearing their feedback makes us more effective as a communication device. I’m grateful for the positive and negative feedback and people’s engagement.

I’ve calmed down a bit over the last few days, but I want to make it clear that our fight is with DirecTV and not with anyone in the weather world. The assertion [by DirecTV] that weather is a commodity is an insult to anyone who dedicates themselves to the science. I don’t want to see it attacked. We’re committed to the same thing as everyone else: getting weather information to people who need it.

* * *

Just one Weather Channel supporter showed up on my Twitter feed when I sent a call out for questions. Upon urging from the Weather Channel, she sent along a video she made that she titled “Why I Want the Weather Channel.”

The gist of her statement was, “It feels like I’ve lost my best friend.” As for me personally, I can sympathize. But, I think I lost the Weather Channel years ago.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and SlateFuture Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.

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