Whenever consumers are asked to name their primary reason for tuning into a TV newscast, the No. 1 answer is always the weather.
Cable news channels of every political stripe see their ratings rise when a weather event occurs, and climate change is increasing their severity and frequency.
It’s why Fox News Media is investing more than $10 million in a new digital service called Fox Weather that will be available as a free, live, 24-hour ad-supported streaming video channel available as a mobile app and on internet-connected TVs through services such as Tubi. It will also be seen on over-the-air TV stations reaching 26 million homes.
The service launching Monday will test the elasticity of the Fox News brand name.
While the flagship news network at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corp. is the most-watched channel on cable TV, its conservative commentary has become more polarizing in recent years. Fox News has come under fire recently over how its opinion hosts have stoked public skepticism of the COVID-19 vaccines, at times with misinformation.
Fox News commentators have also been largely dismissive of climate change. Last year, prime-time host Tucker Carlson described climate change as "systemic racism in the sky," and he raised doubts about its impact on the wildfires that swept the West Coast.
The attitude spilled into the news coverage last month, when one of Fox News’ anchors, Bill Hemmer, put quotes around the term climate change during coverage of extreme weather that caused flooding in New York City.
The political stance raises the question of whether viewers who eschew the channel for the right-leaning political bent of its most-watched hosts will trust a weather service with the Fox name.
The company will face well-established competitors such as the Weather Channel, the leading national TV source of weather information for 40 years. AccuWeather, which has supplied forecasts to consumers, media outlets and corporations since 1962 and has ramped up its own cable channel, recently launched a video streaming service called AccuWeather Now. Colorado-based WeatherNation also supplies forecasts to TV stations and cable systems throughout the U.S.
Sharri Berg, a 25-year veteran of Fox News who is overseeing the new venture, said the Fox Weather service will deliver accurate information to users and treat climate change as a reality.
“Climate change is part of the way we all live now,” Berg said in a recent interview at Fox News headquarters in Manhattan. “We won’t be debating it. We’re going to cover it with science and facts and data. I have zero oversight for Fox News prime time and they have zero oversight over Fox Weather.”
Amy Freeze, a veteran meteorologist who joined Fox Weather from the Walt Disney Co.’s WABC-TV in New York, fried an egg on a sidewalk in Newark in 2011 when the area had its hottest day on record. She also covered the two biggest blizzards in New York City history.
Explaining the science behind such extreme weather events has become part of the job. “It’s something we should be talking about, whether it’s getting warmer colder, wetter, drier," said Freeze. "All of those things encompass what we’re doing every day.”
Berg said she has already assigned a meteorologist to cover the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this month. “We will have a team who will listen and learn and report,” she said.
Bill Hague, executive vice president of the research firm Magid, said Fox Weather will have no choice but to play it straight if it wants to be a viable competitor, even in an age where advocacy and opinion have seeped into TV news.
“With the weather, you’ve got to be right,” Hague said. “It’s an area where consumers don’t mess around.”
Fox News Media Chief Executive Suzanne Scott pushed the idea of a weather service as part of the company's effort to expand its brand name and tap revenue streams beyond cable television. While the Fox News Channel continues to generate robust profits, the pay-TV universe that provides the bulk of its revenue is on a slow but steady decline.
The company has put its name on a streaming service, Fox Nation, which offers lifestyle and entertainment programming that appeals to its news audience, and according to analyst estimates now has more than 1 million paid subscribers. Fox News also launched a book publishing imprint in November that has turned out two bestsellers, including anchor Shannon Bream's "The Women of the Bible Speak," which has sold more than 500,000 copies.
For Fox Weather, the company hired a staff of 100 people, 40 of whom are accredited meteorologists. Along with Freeze, who started her career at KTLA in Los Angeles, the company recruited Nick Kosir, known as the Dancing Weatherman, a Charlotte, N.C., meteorologist whose TikTok routines have accrued 2.5 million followers.
Fox Weather will also draw on the meteorologists at the 18 Fox television stations, including KTTV in Los Angeles, enabling the service to go deeper on regional and local weather events when necessary. The set, which can accommodate up to 10 meteorologists at a time, will alter its lighting to reflect current conditions, with orange and blue hues for clear skies during the day or red to signify a weather emergency.
While Fox Weather will have a video stream that looks like the forecasts viewers are used to seeing on TV newscasts, the service’s app is offering innovations aimed at attracting younger consumers.
Fox has acquired Weather Lab, an Austin, Texas-based firm that developed a 3-D radar map that gives app users the ability to scan across the country for conditions on their mobile devices. The app can also be personalized to track long-range forecasts for up to 10 different dates and locations.
“My 16 year-old daughter will use this,” said Berg, citing a demographic group that does not typically watch TV news or weather.
Starting in January, viewers will also be able to watch Fox Weather for free on digital over-the-air channels in the cities where the Fox Corp. owns TV stations.
Fox Weather will attempt to pull audiences away from the Weather Channel, now owned by Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios. However, the company is not sitting by idly as Fox News Media encroaches on its turf.
Next year, the Weather Channel will launch a direct-to-consumer streaming product, Weather Channel +, where consumers without a pay TV subscription can get the service’s live forecasts and programming for $4.99 a month.
Later in 2022, the company is rolling out Weather Channel en Español, a full-time Spanish-language service that will be available for streaming and on over-the-air digital channels throughout the country.
Allen, whose firm acquired the Weather Channel and its digital assets, including Weather.com, for a reported $300 million, said he welcomes the arrival of Fox Weather. He believes it will generate more attention for his outlets.
“I bought the Weather Channel in March 2018, and you guys barely wrote about it,” Allen said. “Rupert Murdoch launches a weather network, and I’ve been doing back-to-back interviews over the last couple of days. I love the competition. There is no Muhammad Ali without George Foreman. The weather news and information business is more essential than ever. So it would have been disappointing if he didn’t do it. I think they are going to do a great job.”
The Weather Channel has upped its coverage and discussion of climate change in recent years. Allen won’t speculate on how Fox will approach the issue, but he believes it’s unlikely that any weather news service could convince the audience that the problem isn’t severe.
“Our bosses, the viewers, are going to have their own ideas,” Allen said. “What are you going to say to the viewers in New York City who saw their cars floating down the street?”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.