Ain’t No Change in the Weather, Part 2

As an amateur weather geek with an overall interest in media, I continued to be exposed to the ongoing online battle between The Weather Channel and DirecTV. Since my last post on this subject, DirecTV did indeed drop The Weather Channel in favor of what has turned out to be (at least for now) a highly insufficient replacement, WeatherNation TV. The battle was finally joined as DirecTV began releasing its own public relations blitz not long after I last wrote about this subject. They criticized The Weather Channel for having too much “reality” programming and other non-weather-related shows and that they were worth much less than the current asking price so they certainly were not going to pay the extra penny-per-subscriber The Weather Channel was requesting.

While the amount of rhetoric that came from The Weather Channel increased, it was toned down from the original “panic mode” that certainly turned some people off (for which star meteorologist Jim Cantore publicly apologized in what seemed to me to be a genuinely regretful statement). However, The Weather Channel continued to advocate that it is indeed in its own way a public service despite being a for-profit enterprise.

The unusual thing about this battle — if it even really was one in DirecTV’s eyes — is that, unlike most such disputes, both sides have now mostly withdrawn from the field. In my opinion, this was DirecTV’s plan from the very start and that they fully intended to drop The Weather Channel no matter what unless the price was basically nothing. I feel that guess is justified based upon a press release they issued last week

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. & DENVER–(BUSINESS WIRE)– DIRECTV, one of the world’s leading providers of digital television entertainment, announced today they have signed a multi-year agreement with WeatherNation, a multi-format, local, regional and national television weather news service.

“This new multi-year agreement strengthens our relationship with WeatherNation and ensures our customers will have a service that is fully committed to providing all weather related information all the time,” said Dan York, Chief Content Officer for DIRECTV. “The overwhelmingly positive comments we’ve been receiving from customers made the decision to extend our agreement easy and expedient.”

“We’re extremely excited about continuing our relationship with DIRECTV to deliver customized, round-the-clock, accurate weather reporting for its 20 million customers,” said Michael Norton, president of WeatherNation. “We’re looking forward to being a primary TV destination for instant access to the latest weather news, radar imagery, forecasting and severe weather coverage for years to come.”

WeatherNation offers a news and information service that is 100 percent dedicated to weather reporting with continuous, HD coverage of current and severe weather news and information and real-time storm tracking utilizing 3D graphics and a staff of top meteorologists to give viewers an in-depth understanding of weather conditions. The service is also available on the DIRECTV Everywhere platform for in and out-of-home live streaming.

Aside from DirecTV’s claims about cost and low viewer levels, there’s no doubt The Weather Channel has some blame to take here. They have indeed gained a reputation for showing a lot of “fluff” programming and not sticking strictly to weather. The meteorological community has bemoaned this for many years. While The Weather Channel has changed this policy over the past year or two, there were many frustrated with the fact that they failed to break in and/or go live for some smaller severe weather outbreaks and they have still not shaken that reputation in certain circles.

Despite the facts that every penny does indeed count, the channel is often not pulling in many more viewers than an infomercial, nobody should feel sorry for such a big money-making corporation, and that they have not always made the best choices to garnish their reputation, my take on this has changed. I have become convinced not only that DirecTV made the wrong move in not giving The Weather Channel an additional penny per subscriber but that, minus the early over-dramatization of the situation, The Weather Channel is indeed in many instances an irreplaceable service.  I have come to this conclusion for two reasons.

The first reason is one that has been building up in my mind over time.  Despite my respect for Paul Douglas, WeatherNation TV is simply not a sufficient provider of the type of detailed weather information regular people and businesses need in order to plan their lives…and it has no hope of changing that for the foreseeable future  The forecasts are vague, do not concentrate on specific areas, and do not focus on areas where significant weather events are happening.  As I saw one current DirecTV customer comment a while back, he went to WeatherNation TV to get information on the next big snowstorm threatening the southeast and was, instead, greeted with a full segment on the weather in Los Angeles. Almost 45 minutes of viewing never told him what his local weather would be.

To combat these types of complaints, DirecTV announced back in March what is also alluded to in the press release quoted above…that they will be providing a way for people to be able to “press a button” at any time to be taken to their local forecast.  Having seen what WeatherNation TV has provided so far, I can’t believe it will be any more than a basic graphic just like the one seen on local TV channels or as a highlight on various websites…and I say that because I have had similar services from various cable providers over the years or even had them available through the television itself.  All people will get is something like this.

example forecast

Not very detailed, is it?
Copyright © 2014 ABC Inc., KABC-TV/DT Los Angeles, CA. All Rights Reserved.

Yes, in many cases, that’s all a person needs.  However, that is not the case when significant weather is coming or, in the second reason I am now convinced DirecTV should not have dropped The Weather Channel, when folks are traveling.

This hit me a few weeks ago when I read a Twitter “tweet” put up by David Clark, President of The Weather Channel.  He passed along a commentary from a person involved with the ski resort industry discussing how the loss of his channel on DirecTV was hurting their businesses as those millions of viewers were no longer exposed to video, pictures, and reports of good skiing conditions.

It wasn’t the skiing angle that got me even though that does concern me as somebody that lives in an area where a good portion of its economy relies upon that industry.  Instead, it triggered in my mind the much bigger and even more important issue…travel.

For those that don’t recall, in May 2007, I took a long driving trip across two-thirds of the United States.  The night before I left on this trip was when the huge tornado ripped through Greensburg, Kansas and destroyed at least 90% of the town.  Two days later, I was in Texas and facing the very same weather pattern which created that monster twister…and that pattern chased me for the next six days all the way into eastern Kentucky.

Being a weather-wise person, I took my laptop with me and frequently checked the National Weather Service website as well as those of local TV stations.  I kept my ear on the local radio…well, as “local” as radio can be in rural areas especially in Texas and Oklahoma where many stations are “translators” with the broadcast originating hundreds of miles away.  Even with all of that information, the first thing I did when getting to my motel every night was to turn on the TV and find The Weather Channel.  Why?

  1. The Weather Channel is always on while one might miss the forecast on a local station or have to wait past 10 or 11 at night to see one.
  2. Even for weather geeks, The Weather Channel is best at plainly explaining when and where significant weather is going to occur.
  3. Even if showing one of their accursed “reality” programs, one can always count on a break-in during commercials on what areas can expect significant weather in the next day.

Especially when traveling through rural areas and even mid-sized cities where the TV stations don’t have large budgets, having The Weather Channel available in a motel is crucial.  During my trip, it saved me many more weather-related hassles than I actually experienced.  Because of that specific information I received from them every night and morning in my motel, I was able to adjust my departure times and routes to make sure I would not be in any serious danger.

Could I have gotten this information from the Internet or a mobile device?  Maybe…depends on the location.  Remember, especially when staying off the Interstate Highway System as I did on that particular trip, there are still large areas of the country not covered by a cellular service that also provides data (plus the fact that one has to be able to afford the data plan).  In addition, despite what a motel’s website says, one never knows when a its Internet service might be inadequate or not work at all.  And…as I mentioned above, car travel is still not an exact science so it’s easy to arrive after all the local TV stations have finished their evening news and one needs to be asleep before news comes on again.

Unfortunately, the thousands if not millions of people traveling the country every day and staying in motels served by DirecTV (a huge portion of their business) were not a part of their calculation when they dropped The Weather Channel.  After all, people traveling are not measured in TV ratings (as DirecTV claims only about 200,000 people are watching The Weather Channel via their service at any given time).  It also probably wasn’t given much thought by either DirecTV or motel owners as what most people think about is if the place where they are going to stay for the night has ESPN, HBO, or pay-per-view.  Then again, who other than the folks at DirecTV would have ever thought that such a staple of the cable/satellite TV world would not be available?

Could WeatherNation TV ever be as good as The Weather Channel at properly informing people about severe weather? Certainly…but there lies the creeping problem for DirecTV. In order to satisfy the thousands (if not millions) of complaints about the change that DirecTV ignored in their press release and other PR statements, for one, WeatherNation TV needs to be live during usual viewing hours and certainly during breaking weather news. That is not currently the case as WeatherNation TV is mostly on a three-hour loop of repeated information. That will cost money. Since WeatherNation TV basically has only one sugar daddy, that money can only come from one place…DirecTV.

Secondly, WeatherNation TV will have to put people in the field to cover such events and strike partnerships with local media outlets so the information they give out is timely and accurate. That will cost money. Oh, sugar daddy…

Third and finally…if DirecTV wants to try this another way and somehow give out severe weather information through the push-a-button method, it is going to take a massive investment in graphics generators and local operators to run them properly in order to equal what The Weather Channel does in being able to tell people when a severe storm will hit a specific area. Call that sugar daddy one more time.

The thing about a sugar daddy is, his money doesn’t just fall from trees. In this case, it comes from the subscribers that will inevitably be asked to pay more to help WeatherNation TV polish its image as a true alternative to The Weather Channel.

Don’t think for one moment that increasing WeatherNation TV’s budget will not be passed along to the consumer even though it is less expensive than The Weather Channel…and, believe me, it will happen very soon…the first time a bunch of DirecTV subscribers are left clueless about approaching severe weather. The bean-counters at DirecTV’s headquarters in El Segundo, California (where weather barely exists beyond morning haze) have already plotted out the level of profit they will gain from not paying for The Weather Channel. When DirecTV is ultimately forced to try to put lipstick on the pig WeatherNation TV currently is, they are certainly not going to let the cut into their desired profit margin. Once again, DirecTV customers will be asked to pay another few dollars per month…just like if they had kept The Weather Channel.

Yep…nothing but the same old song and dance, all while receiving less service for one’s dollar on something of special importance to those being left more and more behind, the people of smaller towns and rural areas of America and other places like motels where their choices are restricted.

Perhaps worst of all for the American television viewer is that this is probably a sign of things to come. Make no mistake…every single other cable television provider and certainly “Cheap Charlie” Ergen at DISH Network have taken notice of how easily DirecTV washed its hands of one of the cornerstones of pay television and exactly how they framed it. It is very easy to see how they will move more and more toward creating cheap “in-house” channels to replace the ones people have come to enjoy even with their own shortcoming similar to The Weather Channel’s.

In the providers’ defense, it’s an easy argument to make. Why pay for Food Network when they have moved away from cooking shows and putting a camera into a kitchen is so easy? Why pay for History Channel when they have moved away from documentaries and older ones that still have valid information can be had at a bargain? Why pay for MTV since it has been almost a generation since it showed music and record companies would die to have anybody showing videos again?

With the exception of sports which shows no sign in losing any appeal (or, ability to squeeze more money out of viewers whether they watch sports or not), almost every niche channel is now in danger of being replaced. Just like with The Weather Channel, they will also be partially to blame because they departed from their original core missions.

All of that being said, it doesn’t make a difference when it comes to money. No matter what channels a provider decides to give out, rates will continue to go up. This is because the profit margin must be at least maintained if not increased…and that’s because the true customer of any of the big television providers is not the person watching at home, it’s Wall Street.

In that battle to keep the stock price up, it’s the many subscribers of DirecTV — and, especially the people traveling forced into having it — that will suffer. No, The Weather Channel won’t be hurt all that much if at all. They have actually increased their potential viewers even with the loss of DirecTV. With Comcast as a partial owner and the possibility that company will be allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable, they will still be seen in plenty of homes.

Aide from money and how much consumers get squeezed for it so huge corporations can keep up profit margins so huge that even Ronald Reagan would be embarrassed by them, the true issue here is choice. More and more, especially in the younger generations, Americans are demanding true choice. The big television and Internet providers don’t want that. They want to give out what they want people to see and they can take it or leave it. With far too much of this country still being under-served on truly fast and unfettered broadband Internet, they don’t have the option of “cutting the cord” and getting their TV online.

The big providers want to keep control of people’s viewing habits and personal information all in the name of exorbitant profits. If a few people get hurt or die because they were not given a full and proper way to be informed about severe weather, that’s not their concern. They’ll just hope the dearly departed customers bought a few profitable pay-per-views to make up for their destroyed converter boxes they won’t get back.

And, all the while, The Man keeps laughing at all the people that are convinced that media no longer needs to be forced into providing any true public services.


P.S. Thanks to Barbara for leaving a comment on my previous post on this subject and inspiring me to finish this entry that had been sitting in my Drafts folder for almost two months.

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