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Oddly enough, The Weather Channel makes for a pretty great streaming service

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It’s... a cable network available for streaming

Mixed reality forecasts are a big part of TWC’s future.
Image: The Weather Channel

The Weather Channel is not trying to win you over by spending big on its version of House of Cards. It’s not bidding on The Office next time it comes up, nor is it interested in NFL games. “Our tentpole is Mother Nature,” says Nora Zimmett, TWC’s chief content officer. “And she’s always delivering weather.”

TWC launched a dedicated streaming service this month. It costs $2.99 a month or $29.99 a year, and it is... well, it’s The Weather Channel. The app’s main screen is an always-on stream that replicates exactly what you’d see on cable. That, Zimmett says, is what viewers were actually looking for. “We looked at our audience and heard, ‘where can I get The Weather Channel if I don’t want to pay $200 a month for a traditional bundle?’” she says. Rather than try to reinvent itself for streaming, TWC opted to just stream its channel.

This is a surprisingly novel idea in the streaming world by the way. Most networks have linear TV deals that specify when and where content is allowed to appear; that’s why most shows only stream after they air and some don’t stream at all. That causes a big problem for news, sports, and other particularly timely content. Who’s going to stream a “live news report” from last week or even last night? Meanwhile, those linear deals continue to be hugely lucrative for those networks, and most are not eager to dump cable (and its carriage fees) a minute before they have to. As a result, you get services like CNN Plus, which tried to build an entirely new lineup of live shows rather than simply streaming its existing ones. And we all know how that went.

“We are at a weird inflection point in our industry,” Zimmett says, “where we have one foot in cable and one foot in streaming. And I think all companies are still trying to figure out how to keep both sides happy – legally, financially, and everything else in between.” The Weather Channel’s bet, here, seems to be that it’s so essential to viewers that it can have it both ways. We’ll see how that pans out: The Weather Channel has had its fair share of fee disputes, and the new streaming service isn’t likely to make the carriers happy.

TWC has another weird corporate situation to deal with, too. The Weather Channel as you know it online and in mobile apps is owned by IBM and is an entirely separate entity from the TV network. As a result, you can’t stream TWC’s service on mobile or PCs — only TVs.(According to the FAQ page, it’s available on “Roku, Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, and Xfinity Flex,” with Vizio support planned in the future.) Which is a bummer.

From a content perspective, though, The Weather Channel is a surprisingly clever study in how to take a linear TV channel and make it feel more internet-y. When you open The Weather Channel’s streaming app, you’re dropped right into the linear feed, the same one everyone’s watching all over the country. But the blue ticker at the bottom? That’s personalized to your local weather, a running feed of everything you need to know right now. You can also call up a full-screen radar to see what’s coming, relegating the live show to one corner of the screen. I spent most of my time in that view, with local weather on most of the screen and the news and shows on the rest, and all I could think was, “Boy does this have Doctors’ Waiting Room TV written all over it.”

The Weather Channel’s app is part personalized, part cable channel.
Image: The Weather Channel

This is the part where you say, “Wait, hang on, who watches The Weather Channel? My phone tells me if it’s raining.” The answer is more people than you’d think, but the outlook’s not great: TWC’s total viewership has grown over the last couple of years, but it’s losing ground with younger viewers. Those are precisely the people TWC is hoping to reach with its streaming service. And, as climate change becomes an ever more important story, Zimmett says she thinks there’s more to the weather than the forecast.

“Our superpower is visualizing data,” Zimmett says. She’s not wrong. TWC has long been known for its mixed reality graphics, including the Unreal Engine-powered animation that showed what a nine-foot Hurricane Florence storm surge might look like. Expect much, much more of that going forward. “At the end of the day, if I feel like my family is in danger due to a storm, I really don’t need a 2D map with orange and yellow colors over it,” Zimmett says. “I want to see someone live in it to show me what’s coming, or to give me a futuristic look at what’s coming to my doorstep.”

There are plenty of places The Weather Channel could and doesn’t embrace this kind of personalization and interactivity, though. I watched a few hours of the service while a red tornado warning spun around in the bottom-right corner, but I couldn’t click on it or learn anything else about what was going on.

The Weather Channel does have some on-demand content, though it’s mostly short clips, explainers, and behind-the-scenes footage. But Zimmett says she has plans. TWC does have some original programming, including Uncharted Adventure, which Zimmett proudly noted was recently nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Going forward, TWC plans to make its new shows available on demand on its streaming service 48 hours before they appear on the live network and stream. (I did watch a couple of episodes of Uncharted Adventure, by the way. It’s a fun show, like a mix between a travel vlog and Man vs. Wild.)

The streaming service is already starting to change the way TWC thinks about its linear programming, too. Zimmett says she’s been inspired by streaming sports as she’s thought about the future of weather coverage. Like the NFL RedZone channel: “maybe we’re covering 10 storms at once, and there’s an automatic channel that anytime you’re getting close to landfall, we’re going to take you there.” Or, akin to the new alternative broadcasts for games, Zimmett says, “We’re really looking at covering weather as an event, which we’ve always done, but doing it in a choose-your-own-adventure way that really brings the storm to the doorsteps of our users.”

But let’s be clear: the weather is still the star of the show here. In a certain, cynical sort of way, it’s never been better to be The Weather Channel. Climate change is making the weather more volatile and natural disasters more frequent, which is exactly the kind of thing that makes a viewer flip to TWC. Hurricane season is just about to start, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting it’s going to be an “above-normal” year. Zimmett says TWC is trying to use the opportunity not to traffic in disaster porn — though you could accuse the company of occasionally doing that. (It does love horrifying storm footage.) Rather, it aims to educate people about the science behind the weather. “It’s critical to us,” she says. “We cannot have a climate conversation without having a weather conversation.”

There’s really no chance that The Weather Channel can compete with Netflix, Disney Plus, and HBO Max to be your go-to entertainment platform. But maybe it doesn’t have to. The company is betting that, as the world shifts to streaming, a huge number of viewers aren’t looking for something radically different than the TV they’re used to; they just want it to be more convenient and less expensive. It’s both personalized and a shared experience, both always on and on demand, and still only a couple of clicks away. (Once it gets to Vizio and Apple TV and the other platforms, anyway.) And, with the weather getting more outrageous seemingly every day, there’s always going to be something to watch.