Three years after retreating from the Continent, The Weather Channel is looking to establish another beachhead in Europe.
This time, though, it will make the jump across the pond via the Internet. Last Friday (July 13), TWC was set to launch weather.co.uk in the United Kingdom, with an eye toward future rollouts in other countries.
The return to Europe is the latest challenge for TWC CEO Decker Anstrom and his team. In recent months, the network has also embarked on a number of other new-media, programming and marketing initiatives designed to lift the channel's ratings and profile in the U.S and abroad. These initiatives will continue when Anstrom becomes the president and CEO of TWC parent Landmark Communications Inc. at the end of 2001.
During his two years at TWC, Anstrom — the former National Cable Television Association president — has introduced a new on-air look and an approach toward programming that varies the mix by daypart. He's also relentlessly expanded the TWC brand through deals with both traditional and new media companies.
Anstrom said he won't rest until The Weather Channel's 19-year-old brand "is the premiere or sole weather provider to consumers everywhere." Indeed, even after he assumes his new role at Landmark, he will continue in his role as CEO and the network's ambassador to the programming industry. A search for a new COO is underway.
In the meantime, TWC will take another stab at Europe, where Landmark made an ill-fated foray in 1996.
After racking up losses as high as $28 million per month, Landmark shut four European channels down in 1998. The 20-million-home overseas effort failed for several reasons, including poor distribution, paltry or non-existent license fees, cultural-protection laws and labor issues.
Since then, TWC has continued to operate two successful Latin American weather networks — one in Spanish and one with Portuguese-language programming for Brazil. Combined, the networks have 10 million subscribers; Weather.com launched complementary Spanish and Portuguese Web sites for the services in 2000.
CHARTING THE WEB
Now TWC has decided to cross the Atlantic again. This time, it's armed with a new business plan centered around weather.com.
"We did a lot of analysis and decided to focus on the Internet, ITV and wireless, figuring it just didn't make sense from an investment standpoint to do traditional, linear television networks," said TWC executive vice president of strategy and development Bahns Stanley. "It's easy to leverage the Internet infrastructure that we have and to create country-specific content."
Burgeoning broadband technology has also allowed TWC to come up with a different international game plan.
"We believe that broadband content — through video clips on-demand and other resources — allows us to provide an interactive experience without having to produce a 24-hour TV network," said Stanley.
After getting things up and running in the U.K., TWC will export its Web format across the English Channel. Similar Web sites are slated to debut in France and Germany late this year. TWC also plans to launch in another 12 nations in 2002.
Back in the States, weather.com's brand has gained a steady foothold on the Internet's slippery slope.
"When we launched, there were 1,500 other weather sites on the Internet and new ones were being launched every day," said Debra Wilson, president and CEO of weather.com. "Finally, we just stopped counting."
But six years later, TWC counts a significant user base. Weather.com receives about 11 million unique visitors a month — about 13 million if you count hits from within America Online's walled garden.
"Were growing in frequency and reach," said Anstrom. "And we're growing our advertising revenues."
Soon, weather.com will begin testing subscription models, he said.
BETTING ON ITV
With an eye toward brand-building both now and in the future, TWC — which also partners with ABC News and has radio and newspaper deals in more than 200 markets — has cut a flood of agreements with a host of Internet and interactive-TV providers over the past few years.
Those deals have made TWC the primary weather provider for services proffered by Wink Communications Inc., WorldGate Communications Inc., Canal Plus, Microsoft TV, DirecTV Inc., RespondTV, Source Media and Web TV Networks Inc., among others.
"We provide interactive programming to WorldGate in Mexico City and we have a Wink deal in Japan," Stanley said. "We have a close relationship with Liberate [Technologies Inc.] and Microsoft [Corp.]. The more we do, the more we learn and the faster we can move. We want to be ready the minute cable operators are ready to roll out ITV."
Currently, the network is working with Liberate, Cox Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. as those MSOs determine how to create a consistent ITV product, Stanley said.
"We work directly with AT&T, so whenever they're ready to go beyond trials, we're ready to go with them," he added.
An accord with Wink made TWC the first dedicated channel offering on DirecTV Interactive and opened TWC's "Instant Weather" ITV channel up to a Wink-enabled universe of 3 million homes, according to Anstrom.
Meanwhile, Weatherscan Local — the company's digital network — is currently in about 2.5 million digital cable homes, via distribution deals with AT&T Broadband, Cox and Comcast.
Comcast began offering Weatherscan last August as a key element of its Comcast Digital Plus service. The channel is now available to over 900,000 households in the MSO's major-market clusters: Philadelphia, Detroit, the Baltimore-Washington area and northern New Jersey "We learned from in-market trial research that Weatherscan was the most frequently viewed channel on our Digital Plus offering," said Comcast vice president of marketing Andy Addis. "Clearly, this service adds significant value to our digital offering.''
Despite setting its sights on new and international business opportunities, TWC is still focused on fortifying its core cable-network business, Anstrom said. In addition to the company's affiliate-friendly public affairs initiatives like "Project Safeside" and its work with Cable in the Classroom, TWC on Memorial Day launched "Rays Awareness," a campaign to spread the word about staying safe from overexposure to the sun.
The network also continues to reshape its technical capabilities. Last week, TWC began enhancing Weather Star XL, a proprietary technology that affiliated cable systems keep on-site to receive highly localized weather information. This upgrade will significantly increase the number of radar images to supply more accurate reads on current area precipitation and approaching storms.
The network's programming strategy also continues to evolve. Known for its scientific and staid approach to reporting climactic conditions, the network now realizes that a little rampaging tornado footage never hurt anyone's primetime ratings.
After watching networks like Discovery Channel make ratings hay with disaster and weather documentaries, TWC last year queried focus groups about offering more dramatic programming.
Viewers were all for it, said senior vice president of programming and production Terry Connelly, who joined TWC in 1999 after serving as president and general manager of WJLA-TV, ABC's Washington affiliate
"So, we did our answer to 'Shark Week,' " Connelly said. "Storm Week," — four nights of hurricanes, blizzards and general weather horror that ran from June 4 to June 7 — was TWC's first programming stunt.
The shows averaged a 0.69 rating, setting a new channel record for one-hour specials.
Connelly — whose resume boasts both Peabody and Emmy awards — has also hired on-air talent and producers with strong journalism backgrounds while implementing a more strategic approach to daypart programming.
During Connelly's watch, TWC has also jazzed up its set and graphics, increased its use of location shooting and, within 18 months, tripled the network's use of live video.
"We've really changed the programming strategy," he said. "It's evolving to what we internally are calling a daypart strategy, as opposed to all-the-time format, everything the same 24/7."
Connelly has steered such format innovations as the morning programming blocks First Outlook
and Your Weather Today, as well as the network's initial gambit into regularly scheduled long-form programming with Atmospheres,
a primetime magazine show that runs on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Your Weather Today, which airs Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., averaged a 0.43 ratings in the second quarter ended July 1, up 6 percent from the comparable year-earlier span, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
The differentiated daypart strategy has also played well on Madison Avenue.
"Sales-wise it has been extremely successful," said Connelly. "It's a lot easier to sell a program than a segment of a 24-hour clock."