Accelerating climate change and its far-flung effects have fast become the most important story in the news cycle. But that isn’t always the stuff that gets talked about or tweeted — or the biggest ratings.
Part of the issue? Shifts in the environment happen gradually over time, not usually in a violent, shocking moment that can be captured by cameras. Increasingly frequent bursts of severe weather are changing that dynamic, but most news outlets have tried to address the story with special reports and new teams of reporters that are add-ons to their journalism infrastructure.
Now the Weather Channel is making climate change a bigger part of its overall focus. The cable network over the next several months plans to infuse climate coverage into its morning, afternoon and even entertainment programs in a way that Nora Zimmett, the outlet’s chief content officer, believes will make for reports that audiences won’t be able to ignore.
“We weren’t singing it from the rafters because American sentiment hadn’t caught up,” the executive says in an interview. But the company has kept tabs on the issue by working with government agencies, nonprofit organizations and universities. In April of last year, 73% of Americans surveyed by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication expressed a belief that global warming is taking place, with only 10% suggesting the opposite. With more consumers embracing climate science, she says, “We have got to talk about it.”
The Weather Channel will retool its morning program, “America’s Morning Headquarters,” so that its largest segment, between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. eastern, offers “more storytelling, more video, more discussion about climate sustainability.” An early-afternoon program, Pattrn, adapted from Weather Channel’s ad-supported broadband outlet, will be led by Stephanie Abrams and Jordan Steele and examine pocketbook issues caused by climate change, like the growing cost of flood insurance or the lack of availability of blueberries in Georgia. New augmented-reality graphics will let viewers see projections of what cities like Charleston, for example, might look like in the future. A new series about travel should launch toward the end of the summer that will examine places that have been changed by weather. And a new documentary series, “Frozen Gold,” will dispatch professional and amateur gold prospectors to Greenland to look for the precious metal amid that country’s melting ice and permafrost.
“This is a show that could only be made possible by climate change,” notes Zimmett.
The Weather Channel, now part of entrepreneur Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, is betting its new environmental emphasis will lend it relevance at a time when traditional viewers are more prone to cut off linear cable and satellite subscriptions. Projections from Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, call for Weather Channel’s subscriber base to fall to 68.2 million in 2021, compared with 74.1 million in 2020 — a dip of nearly 8%.
“People aren’t stopping watching media. They just want it differently,” says Zimmett. In addition to Pattrn, Weather Channel also operates a local broadband service LocalNow, and expects to launch another service in months to come that will offer “a new way to reach the Weather Channel.” She declined to offer more specifics or to say whether it might be a subscription-based streaming service.
Other companies are trying to get on the weather map. WarnerMedia’s CNN recently unveiled plans for a new team of journalists devoted to coverage of climate. And Fox Corp.’s Fox News Media is expected to launch Fox Weather, an ad-supported streaming weather service, later this year (Australian news properties controlled by Fox Corp.’s corporate sibling, News Corp., have been accused of fostering a rebuke of climate science, which the company has denied).
Weather Channel’s Zimmett says her outlet has something the others don’t: a reputation built on years of service. “When you think about looking up something on the internet, you think about Googling it. There are many other search engines, but only one Google,” she says. “You can build any weather operation you like, but there’s only one Weather Channel, and only one authority.”
These networks will have plenty to show viewers in years to come. “My overall sense is that the most impact of weather and climate will be felt in the area of extreme events,” says James Miller, a professor at Rutgers University’s department of marine and coastal sciences who studies climate change. “The U.S. southwest appears to be in a long-term drying period. Forest fires have been increasing as well. Arctic sea-ice continues to melt, and the Arctic will likely be ice free in late summer by mid-century. Arctic permafrost is melting as well and already has implications for infrastructure and may affect the warming rates as well. Although not an immediate climate effect, sea-level rise is happening and will require very large investments to maintain infrastructure in low-lying coastal communities, such as Miami in the U.S.”
Weather Channel executives believe American viewers don’t want to experience climate programming as something special or separate, but rather as part of their mainstream media diet. “It has become part of our vernacular. It is part of our natural rhythm of forecasting,” says Zimmett. “I think some of the mistakes that have been made that I have seen are trying to be too didactic, too preachy, maybe too political, but also stopping the flow of a show or a story in order to do an hour-long climate change special.” During coverage of hurricanes, she says, “it’s happening in real time. You are seeing the storm surge. We are not going to be pressing pause and saying, ‘Now for our climate-change segment.’”
Nor is the network going to wade into the politics of the topic. “We call balls and strikes. We have to stick to the facts and not get alarmist about it, because the science shows us that there’s still time. We aren’t going to scream and yell and throw confetti and say, ‘If we don’t do something now, we are going to show they can help and the small things they can do to make a difference.”
The network is making its choices based on research of viewer habits, and then will tweak its programming to accommodate. The retooled “America’s Morning Headquarters,” for example, will last throughout the morning, a nod to Weather Channel’s understanding that more viewers will work from home a few days each week and get up later in the day for their first crack at news. “We are seeing people shifting their viewing habits from maybe turning on the TV at 6 a.m. to turning it on at 7, 7:30, 8,’” says Zimmett.
Like forecasting the weather, predicting what audiences want is never easy, she adds “We always want to make sure we are programing to our viewers and not to ourselves.”