Today’s subject involves the Internet, media providers, and weather. In other words, there was no way I could avoid talking about it. ;-)
After having been out of it for a while due to a couple of minor but extremely irritating illnesses, I learned yesterday morning that the satellite television service provider DirecTV is planning to drop The Weather Channel on Monday, January 13th. Of course, this type of thing is now a regular occurrence here in the United States where a channel (or, group of channels) believes it deserves more money for its programming and the service provider doesn’t want to cut into its current profits or raise rates. Very often, these situations are resolved at the last moment or after only a day or two of interruption. Frankly, it could all be over by the time most people read this.
However, there are a few things in this particular dispute that are quite unusual. I believe this makes these companies’ actions worth noting even though this might all be resolved quickly.
Here in the Information Age, previous battles of this sort have been played out in full over the Internet, most notably on places like Facebook and Twitter where each company tries to get viewers all pumped up on their side of the argument. Special websites are put up by each company to give their side of the story…usually one being something like DontDropMyChannel.com and the other being DontRaiseMyRates.net.
The notable thing this time around that I have not seen before is only one side is doing this. Only The Weather Channel is out there on the Net saying anything while DirecTV is remaining completely silent…and, in my view, this does not bode well for The Weather Channel because DirecTV has an ace-in-the-hole provided to them by none other than their closest rival.
In May 2010, this same battle played out between The Weather Channel and America’s other satellite television provider, DISH Network. As he has always been notorious for doing, DISH’s founder and owner, “Cheap Charlie” Ergen, dropped The Weather Channel in the dispute and helped start a rival weather channel — a station now known as WeatherNation TV run by esteemed meteorologist and entrepreneur, Paul Douglas. While Cheap Charlie got the deal he wanted and returned The Weather Channel back to the DISH lineup after a four-day absence, what became WeatherNation TV has since reorganized and stuck around. It streams on the Net 24-hours a day and is shown on several digital sub-channels throughout the country. While having nowhere near the star power and resources of The Weather Channel, WeatherNation TV is still a competent service if not as exciting — perhaps just a little bit like The Weather Channel used to be before it really started exercising its personalities.
It is now this very channel, once exclusive to DISH, that rival DirecTV has already placed on its dial right next to where The Weather Channel sits. If no agreement comes by Monday, only WeatherNation TV will be available to DirecTV’s over 35.5 million subscribers…and at a fraction of the cost of The Weather Channel even though that station is extremely inexpensive in the grand scheme of things.
The price each station charges a service provider is important to know in this argument. Even though one of the most well-known cable/satellite channel brands, The Weather Channel currently costs each DirecTV subscriber only an estimated 13 to 15 cents per month. No matter what side of this issue one wants to take, that’s a bargain compared to ESPN that, thanks to dramatically increasing sports rights fees, now costs each subscriber well over five dollars per month whether they watch or not (and, in some cases, whether they subscribe or not). That mere behind-the-sofa-cushions change for The Weather Channel is for a station that indeed performs a public service, even though perhaps not as much as The Weather Channel’s current tweets might infer…but, more on that later.
Still, every penny matters and there is a big difference between the number of people and demographic that watch “expensive” ESPN and a “cheap” The Weather Channel. Despite the public service The Weather Channel provides — even cancelling all commercials during severe weather outbreaks — there are only so many people that will watch. After all, even though a big and generally-trusted brand, an audience for a weather event is going to be split between The Weather Channel and anywhere from two to six local network TV affiliates depending on the area…assuming one has paid the extra six dollars per month to DirecTV to provide those local stations.
Just consider that for a moment on DirecTV’s side…we’re only talking about just a handful of television markets even in the largest weather event that are most likely to be interested. To be frank, the rest are weather geeks like me and…well…old people. Right or wrong, no television provider cares about old people because they don’t attract advertisers who pay for all of this sort of TV…and they especially don’t care if the amount of old people is smaller than is watching a rerun of Hogan’s Heroes on TV Land even if the weather is so bad outside that cows are flying around.
I also believe there is one other hidden element in DirecTV’s thinking. Anybody that has ever had satellite TV knows that one thing almost always happens when the weather gets bad — pixelation and “the chirp.” For those that have never had the pleasure of pixelation…
As for “the chirp,” that is a quick, high-pitched sound that often comes along with pixelation when the satellite receiver loses and then regains the signal. To say these things can be annoying would be quite an understatement.
When this starts happening, the telephones light up at the satellite provider’s call center with people asking why they are no longer getting a picture. This is for two reasons. The first is, both DirecTV and DISH are not fully honest with people about how long or how often they will lose their signal in rain, snow, hail, fog, and even just clouds. Folks selling these systems are told to tell customers that they will experience pixelation only during the worst of weather conditions. As somebody that has not only been a long-time satellite TV subscriber but has also worked in the industry, I can tell you that’s just plain not true.
As for that hidden element…when I was a customer service representative at DISH for a few months before being promoted over to its headquarters, we were told that each call to us ended up costing the company over five dollars. That combined what was paid for each customer’s use of the toll-free telephone number with the costs to run the building plus the chump change that Cheap Charlie pays his slaves employees. All of this is exactly the same for DirecTV (although I hear they treat their phone jockeys a little bit better). If that is the case, there must be some thinking that, if people are going to call in so much and cost us so much money when the when the weather is bad somewhere and the viewers often cannot watch The Weather Channel when they need it most, why pay so much for it when there is a competent and much cheaper alternative?
As for that second reason the telephones light up…that is due to how dumbed-down so many Americans have become. It’s not necessarily their fault. It’s just the world they have been forced into. It is on this front where I now turn and start to give this story more from the perspective of The Weather Channel.
As The Weather Channel has gone into its social media attack mode, the tone could easily seem to be nothing but self-serving. After all, calling a commercial enterprise a “public service” is teetering on the edge of incredibility.
While there is certainly some corporate self-preservation going on here to the point of the channel’s mega-stars Jim Cantore and Dr. Greg Forbes making multiple tweets along these lines, they also have a strong element of truth. As I mentioned before, The Weather Channel goes commercial-free during severe weather events which is to their own detriment as that is when they get their highest ratings. In addition, there is no channel from top-to-bottom that is more connected with its viewers. One is just as likely to get a tweet answered from even the most famous of their on-camera meteorologists as one of their producers or interns…and such tweets often contain vital information.
Yes, The Weather Channel is occasionally guilty of unnecessary hype. It’s easy to see especially when a hurricane might be developing as one can almost sense the collective hard-on growing from their studios in Atlanta that they might have a chance to bring out all the great toys they have at their disposal. The station is also guilty of some hubris, most notably in how it has bypassed the wishes of the National Weather Service and decided to start naming major winter storms just like hurricanes. That hubris really came out and got slapped down early on Saturday when many tweets coming from the official account and those of its employees suggested contacting Congress about DirectTV’s threat…which did not sit well with the all-government-sucks crowd that is a big part of their audience (that angle soon stopped).
Despite all of these drawbacks, I think there is something the folks at The Weather Channel know that makes them feel they can indeed say they are a public service. They know full well from the close contact they have with their audience that many Americans don’t know where else to go for weather information.
That is probably at least a slight shock to most of this blog’s readers. However, remember that people coming here are at least somewhat tech-savvy, have the ability to engage in critical thinking, and/or know how to ask questions. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly as much of that in this country as there used to be…and, as an example, I’ll use sports.
Just as The Weather Channel has been around since the dawn of the cable era, so has ESPN. With either channel, even if somebody doesn’t watch it, they’ve heard of it and generally know where it is on their dial. Recently, the old Versus channel was changed to NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) with a big push to get major sports contracts and compete with ESPN. NBCSN’s major problem is not that its events are unattractive. It’s major problem is that the majority of people that have the channel do not know where it is on their dial…and, if they can’t find it, they don’t watch it.
To people reading this, that must seem incredible. The on-screen program guide or any number of online resources would quickly reveal where NBCSN sits on even the smallest of cable systems. Even when placed right in the same group of channels where ESPN sits, they still cannot find it. This will be the same problem for people using DirecTV or any other system that tries to pull the same switch over to WeatherNation TV.
I know that some reading this might ask why this is a big deal as even most unenlightened people can find their local channels if weather is a true threat. That depends upon where it is. As somebody that tracks severe weather with a pointed interest toward how the local media is covering it, that is not always a good alternative. Some television markets are excellent on this point. Oklahoma City is a prime example. Every network station there will go to wall-to-wall coverage if any county in their assigned broadcast area is threatened and it doesn’t matter if the affected population is 30,000 or 3. However, there are too many other markets even within Tornado Alley that won’t do this. They dismiss their public service mandate from the FCC and often give in to the mindless complainers that get upset when what they want to watch is interrupted. In such markets and especially in their rural areas, The Weather Channel has indeed been the best if not the only game in town…and, if people cannot find its alternative, that is truly a terrible loss.
This is indeed a very interesting battle shaping up as it is the first of its kind I know of that isn’t all about greed. DirectTV (along with DISH) just issued a rate increase and would certainly not like that trend to continue. After all, overall television viewership continues to decline in favor of online options. They are probably genuine in their thought that WeatherNation TV can be a viable alternative to The Weather Channel as maybe getting critical weather information out doesn’t need high-paid stars and so many bells-and-whistles.
On the other hand, one cannot argue that having “stars” people trust who also happen to be top-level meteorologists has proved to be a great way to keep people out of harm when so many Americans still ignore weather warnings. The Weather Channel does indeed have a public service element to it. Despite occasionally flirting with jumping the shark, they always come back to what is most important and have spent over three decades honing their delivery skills during severe weather in order to get the largest amount of people to heed their warnings.
Where do I come down on this? It’s hard to say because I’m not in the negotiating room. Of course, one way or another, it will eventually be part of a rate increase down the road no matter what. If DirecTV keeps The Weather Channel, it will certainly cost more even if less than what is currently being asked. After all, costs to run such an enterprise are not going down. If DirecTV goes with WeatherNation TV, then it will need to start adding its own bells and whistles and star power plus it will begin to grow its own clout. While that might be less expense for DirecTV even over the long term, it’s still more money and that comes from only one place — the subscribers.
So…for once, I don’t have a conclusion as I normally would that points to one side or the other being The Man. In a sense, both are The Man because it’s not like we’re talking about a couple of mom-and-pop corner businesses here (remember that The Weather Channel is owned by Comcast/NBC). Both will be fine with or without each other. Some competition for the first time in its history might be good for The Weather Channel. On the other hand, it might be bad if they decide their way to increased popularity and forcing DirecTV to carry them again (or any other television provider that tries the same thing) is to go the way of Music Television and The History Channel that no longer show music or history.
If The Man is involved in this squabble, he is standing as more of the attitude there has been in the country ever since the dawn of the cable era in that he decides what channels we get in what combinations and that we take it or leave it. When looked at in that light, more people are sticking it to The Man every day as the Internet Age is bringing about a generation that wants choice and will shun any entity that refuses to give it to them. That is one of many reasons why The Man is trying so hard to turn the Internet into a glorified version of cable/satellite TV with exorbitant rates to match the reduced choices.
Ah, but that’s another fight on another subject that needs to be covered another day. Until then, as they say on Twitter, it should be time to get some #popcorn and watch this battle play out between The Weather Channel and DirecTV…assuming DirecTV will actually come out and fight instead of just staying at home with its new girlfriend, WeatherNation TV.
And…let’s not forget about that girlfriend, either. After all, DISH left her in only four days and she hasn’t had a big date again in almost four years. I would hate to be Paul Douglas right now wondering whether his “daughter” is finally going to get to go steady with somebody or get dumped a second time in favor of the popular homecoming queen.