Weather Channel vs. Dish Network: Storm Warning for Viewers
by Gary Susman, posted May 25th 2010 2:00PM
Last week's dispute between the Weather Channel and Dish Network seems to have been resolved, with the Weather Channel getting most of what it wanted from the satellite service provider.
But the underlying issues -- whether the Weather Channel's new entertainment programming is doing a dangerous disservice to viewers when major storms loom, and the increasing pressure from cable channels for greater fee concessions from service providers -- are far from resolved and are only going to get worse in the months ahead.
Viewers at home should brace themselves for rough winds.
Some 14 million Dish subscribers nearly lost the Weather Channel last week when Dish threatened to drop the channel from its lineup. The stated reason: the channel's switch from its all-forecasts-all-the-time format to showing Friday night movies (some clearly weather-themed, like 'The Perfect Storm' or 'The Avengers,' some only tangentially weather-related, like 'Misery,' which opens with a blizzard).
Dish -- and some viewers -- argued that the channel was no longer providing a needed service, and Dish even threatened to create its own competing weather channel and add it to the lineup.
But the conflict was also about money, reports the Los Angeles Times, with the Weather Channel seeking an extra penny per month per subscriber in carriage fees, according to industry analyst firm SNL Kagan. That adds up to about $1.7 million per year, which Dish will presumably pass on to its customers. The demand for increased fees -- and the corresponding threat that the channel would go dark -- is a scenario that has already recurred several times this year between other channels and other cable operators, and is one that is likely to keep happening, with subscribers ultimately paying the price in the form of a bigger cable or satellite bill.
According to the New York Times, Dish Network wasn't the only source of complaints about the channel's entertainment programming; so had some viewers, and so had the network's star anchor, Jim Cantore. When viewer Patricia Vollmer voiced her anger via Twitter about the airing of a movie on April 23 instead of breaking storm news, Cantore tweeted back, "You're not alone."
The channel told the New York Times that its policy is to interrupt the movie with breaking severe weather coverage, but it doesn't necessarily follow that policy always. On April 30, during a tornado outbreak, Cantore told his Twitter followers that the movie would be canceled, but later, he apologized to viewers, tweeting that management had misled him by telling him "we were bagging the 'movie' to do what this network was created for." The Times reports that the channel did air an alternate live feed in areas directly affected.
The Weather Channel is hardly alone in diluting its brand by adding questionable entertainment programming in order to boost ratings. Cable channels from MTV (the "M" once stood for music, you young'uns) to TLC (once The Learning Channel, now better known as home to the likes of Jon & Kate) to AMC (once upon a time, "American Movie Classics," now just general movies and original drama series like 'Mad Men'), A&E (which once stood for "Arts & Entertainment" but is now largely reality shows) to Bravo (ditto) to the History Channel (what's historical about 'Pawn Stars'?) have been trending that way for years. Still, no viewer's life or property is at risk because Bravo decides to air a 'Real Housewives' marathon instead of 'Inside the Actors Studio.'
So the Weather Channel's movement toward movies over meteorology was the pretext for Dish's threat to yank the channel and replace it with its own weathercast as of last Friday. But the hour came and went, and negotiations continued. In the end, the channel agreed to provide Dish subscribers with a second channel of just local forecasts, but it also got Dish to agree to drop the threat of a rival weather network. Perhaps more important, it got Dish to cough up that extra penny. (Dish subscribers currently pay about 11 cents per month for the channel.)
The settlement marks at least the fourth time in 2010 that a channel has gone dark, or nearly gone dark, because it's been pushing for a higher fee. There was a tussle between the Fox broadcast network and Time Warner Cable at the beginning of the year, one between Cablevision and Scripps that briefly darkened Food Network and HGTV, and one between Cablevision and ABC that was resolved moments before the Oscars, ABC's biggest program of the year, was to air. Terms of those settlements haven't been disclosed, but it seems clear that channels have been emboldened to challenge service providers and demand carriage fee increases. The Weather Channel may be adding just a penny a month to Dish subscribers' bills, but in a 500-channel universe, all those pennies can really add up.
It would be nice if, for the extra cash cable and satellite viewers will likely be paying, we'd get the unique (and sometimes, vitally useful) programming these channels were once known for, instead of just more reality shows and movie reruns.
Check out Jim Cantrone in action during a storm last year.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.