Fox’s New Channel Changes the Climate for Weather TV

As viewers tune out cable news, Rupert Murdoch is preparing the debut of Fox Weather, a potentially powerful new player in a sphere long dominated by the Weather Channel.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

Weather is taking the media industry by storm.

Later this year, Rupert Murdoch is set to debut Fox Weather, a 24-hour streaming channel that promises to do for 7-day forecasts what Fox has done for American politics, financial news and sports. Not to be outdone, the Weather Channel — granddaddy of television meteorology — announced the creation of a new streaming service, Weather Channel Plus, that the company believes could reach 30 million subscribers by 2026.

Amid a waning appetite for political news in the post-Trump era, media executives are realizing that demand for weather updates is ubiquitous — and for an increasing swath of the country, a matter of urgent concern. In the past week alone, temperatures in the Pacific Northwest broke records, wildfires burned in Colorado, and Tropical Storm Elsa strengthened into a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean.

At CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, average viewership for the first half of 2021 fell 38 percent from a year prior. The audience for the Weather Channel was up 7 percent.

“All the networks are ramping up for this,” said Jay Sures, a co-president of United Talent Agency who oversees its TV division. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that climate change and the environment will be the story of the next decade.” One of his firm’s clients, Ginger Zee, the chief meteorologist at ABC News, now has 2.2 million Twitter followers — more than any ABC News personality besides George Stephanopoulos.

Fox Weather’s impending debut opens a new front in the media wars, but Byron Allen, the comedian-turned-media-baron whose Allen Media Group bought the Weather Channel for $300 million in 2018, insists that he welcomes the competition. “Rupert Murdoch is very smart; he is the best of the best,” Mr. Allen said in an interview. “I am not surprised he’s coming into the weather space. Honestly, I would have been disappointed if he didn’t.”

Mr. Allen said that he and Mr. Murdoch recently met for an hour in the latter mogul’s office on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. “We had a great time together,” he recalled. “Now the world will understand how big of a business the weather business is and how important it is.” (A spokeswoman for Mr. Murdoch did not comment on the meeting.)

The weather media ecosystem — everything from iPhone apps to localized subscription sites and umbrella-toting personalities on the local 10 o’clock news — is a lucrative, if often overlooked, corner of the industry, where the battle for attention is increasingly fierce. Advertisers weary of the choppy politics and brand boycotts of the Trump years see weather as a relatively uncontroversial port in the squall.

“Everyone in media is trying to figure out habitual behavior; everyone wants you addicted,” said Rich Greenfield, a partner at LightShed Ventures and a veteran media analyst. “The reason why weather is so interesting to so many people is it’s something you actually open up every day — daily, hourly, if not minute by minute.”

Much of the recent flurry of activity is motivated by the weather world’s big new interloper: Fox, whose unlikely entry into 24/7 weather broadcasting is part of a digital push by the Murdoch family.

Sean Hannity will not be giving a forecast (yet). But Fox Weather, which will be funded by advertisers, is aggressively poaching star meteorologists from Houston, Seattle, St. Louis and other markets. It is also taking a run at major talent at the Weather Channel, with several Hollywood agents recounting frenzied bidding wars. A top Weather Channel meteorologist — Shane Brown, whose title was “senior weather product architect” — defected to Fox last month despite efforts to keep him.

Inside Mr. Murdoch’s company, the view is that the sometimes-staid world of weather TV is ripe for disruption. Fox is hiring a throng of meteorologists and weather data analysts for the venture, which includes a flashy multimillion-dollar studio at its Midtown Manhattan headquarters. The service will cover major national weather events and integrate dozens of local forecasters from Fox’s regional affiliate stations.

The Weather Channel is already throwing some shade.

“They couldn’t even get a headline right about Tropical Storm Bill,” said Nora Zimmett, the network’s chief content officer, referring to a FoxNews.com article that some meteorologists criticized because it claimed that a relatively benign storm posed a “massive” risk to the Eastern Seaboard.

“I applaud Fox getting into the weather space, but they should certainly leave the lifesaving information to the experts,” said Ms. Zimmett, who worked at Fox News in the 2000s. She called climate change “a topic that is too important to politicize, and if they do that, they will be doing Americans a disservice.”

A Fox Weather spokeswoman shot back: “While the Weather Channel is focused on trolling FoxNews.com for unrelated stories, Fox Weather is busy preparing the debut of our innovative platform to deliver critical coverage to an incredibly underserved market.”

Climate change is a broad-based concern. A Pew Research survey in April found that 59 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believed that human activity contributes to climate change. (The figure is 91 percent for Democrats and those with Democratic-leaning views.)

Still, some of Fox News’s conservative commentators, including Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, have a track record of downplaying, if not denying, the threat of climate change. The subject has even generated division within the Murdoch family: James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s younger son, rebuked his father last year after Murdoch-owned media outlets in Australia dismissed climate change as a culprit for deadly wildfires that ravaged the country.

Brian Wieser, the lead analyst at GroupM, the media investing arm of the ad giant WPP, laughed at the notion that weather could be considered apolitical. “You would think — except I’m sitting here in Portland, Ore., in 115 degrees,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s an uncontroversial topic.”

Referring to Fox Weather, he added: “How do you address the fact that weather changes are caused to some degree by humans when you have a media property with a history of challenging that fact?”

Fox Weather declined to make its executives available for interviews. But its spokeswoman said the service will have “a dedicated team of leading meteorologists and experts” that will offer “in-depth reporting surrounding all weather conditions, and we are excited to showcase to viewers what a full-service comprehensive weather platform can deliver beginning this fall.”

The Weather Channel, which started broadcasting in 1982, has some reason to be nervous. Cord-cutting has eroded the audience for cable TV as viewers migrate to digital platforms. Last month, the Weather Channel revamped its morning programming to focus more on storytelling and forecasters’ personalities. A new slate of shows about climate change is planned, including a documentary series, “Frozen Gold,” focused on amateur miners in Greenland, where melting ice has exposed mineral deposits.

Mr. Allen, the chairman of the company that owns the Weather Channel, said in the interview that he was unbothered by Fox’s poaching of his talent. “Business is a contact sport,” he said. “So they took a couple of our producers. That’s OK. What I’ve always found is that whenever we hire new people, we usually get better.”

Rivalries, he added, can be mutually beneficial.

“There’s no Ali without George Foreman,” Mr. Allen said. “I just love the fact that one of the best to ever live in the business of media wants to be a partner in this space with me.”

Leave a Reply