There’s a new wind blowing through the building that houses Fox News Channel.
Amy Freeze and Craig Herrera spent a recent weekday afternoon in a TV studio at the company’s New York headquarters rehearsing, but not for a new opinion program or roundtable show, but for a streamcast focused on the most-up-to-date news about the weather. They talked about oil spills, wildfires and abrupt changes in temperature. At one point, the duo discussed the Biden administration’s support of wind power, noting that it would likely help Americans recover more quickly from power outages. A chyron imposed on a screen that captured their exchange read: “Biden administration gives wind farms a boost.” Sean Hannity might be seen taking issue with a Biden-backed environmental policy, but Freeze and Herrera just have a report to give. All the duo’s work took place in a facility that once served as home to a newsgathering team that supported Shepard Smith, who often led coverage of important national events.
But that’s where most of the overt connections to the well-scrutinized Fox Corp. cable network end. There are none of the deep, pervasive Fox News Channel reds to which its viewers have long been accustomed seen here. Instead, Herrera and Freeze are surrounded by teal, warm orange and yellow — colors that remind viewers of weather conditions — because the duo and a phalanx of meteorologists are rehearsing what live coverage might look like for Fox Weather, a new ad-supported live-streamed venue set to launch October 25 that will be available via mobile app, connected TVs, and, in some cases, even via digital cable outlets operated by Fox’s local TV stations. As morning becomes afternoon and evening, says Sharri Berg, the executive overseeing the launch, viewers will also see yellow and persimmon. Red will likely surface when severe weather events take place.
“This is a different product,” says the executive.
Fox Corp. is counting on it. Fox Weather, built with help from Fox News and Fox’s local TV stations, launches at a stormy moment in the field of weather media, and the company’s entry into the space isn’t to be taken lightly. Fox has over the course of the last few decades made a business of building operations in markets previously believed to be overserved. Its bet on a fourth broadcast network in the 1980s was initially derided, as was its bid to counter CNN with a news network that featured programing with partisan views. Both the Fox broadcast network and Fox News Channel are now among TV’s biggest media assets.
And yet Fox’s operating family, the Murdochs, have come under scrutiny in the past for the views some of their properties have promulgated regarding which way the wind is really blowing. Australian news properties controlled by Fox Corp.’s corporate sibling, News Corp., have long been criticized for fostering a rebuke of climate science. The company has denied those claims, and, In a notable maneuver, the Australian holdings this month planned to run a two-week campaign calling for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, all three Fox News primetime opinion hosts have on occasion pushed back on proposed climate-change policies from the left. Laura Ingraham, for example, earlier this year warned her viewers of “greeniacs” who want to seize upon “another hyped crisis” to impose severe rules.
Berg doesn’t see politics in the Fox Weather forecast. “If you’re asking about climate change, climate change is part of our lives. It’s how we live. It’s not going to be ignored,” says Berg, who acknowledges that Fox Weather’s handling of the issue is “the question many people have.” At Fox Weather, she adds, “we will be reporting facts,” with meteorologists who “came here to build a service for our viewers. We will have all the best tools at their disposal to understand the forecast, communicate that and make sure that the risk and action taken by the viewer is clear.”
The weather news cycle is expected to churn as intensely as the one centered on politics. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes and heat spikes are projected to become more common, a phenomenon that could give rise to all kinds of other conditions that consumers will be eager to understand. The earth’s changing climate could affect individuals’ health, says Jon Nese, associate head of undergraduate programs at Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, and will probably spur new decisions by major corporations. It could even prompt debates about national security as permafrost and ice melt in polar regions.
“I don’t think the topic of climate change is going way anytime soon as part of the public discourse,” he says.
Many companies have found a business in weather, including The Weather Channel, which the market-research firm Kagan, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, projects will generate more than $260 million in ad revenue and distribution fees in 2021. Even Berg acknowledges that “the marketplace is overcrowded. You have your top ten weather apps and hundreds of niche free apps and pay apps.” But the sheer number of weather outlets, she says, “shows you consumers are going from platform to platform for the weather information they want,” and a smart company can gather more of it under one umbrella.
Indeed, the battle for weather aficionados is likely to create a clash. Weather Channel, owned by influential entrepreneur Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, announced months ago it was planning a more intense focus on changes in the environment, citing consumers’ rising interest in climate change. Fox, never known as a corporate shrinking violet, intends to promote Fox Weather during football telecasts on its broadcast network and via Fox News. It has hired some Weather Channel personnel and recently struck a deal for exclusive data with WeatherStem, which provides information and video collegiate and NFL stadiums across the U.S. The company has worked with Weather Channel in the past.
The environment is changing rapidly in the business of traditional media as well. Big cable networks like Fox News Channel continue to generate millions of dollars in advertising and distribution fees every year, but audiences for traditional TV are migrating to streaming hub such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max. Like other cable giants that range from ESPN to TNT, Fox News is projected to lose subscribers in years to come. In 2021, the cable-news outlet is projected to shed about 5% of its subscribers, ending the year with 76.8 million, according to Kagan. In 2020, the network had 81.1 million subscribers.
Fox Weather is part of a growing assortment of broadband products launched by Fox News Media under CEO Suzanne Scott. Fox Nation serves as a sort of “Netflix for conservatives,” offering a regular show from Tucker Carlson, true crime stories from Nancy Grace and, at times, movies from Clint Eastwood. A streaming service launched in 2020 makes Fox News programming available to overseas subscribers. If successful, Berg says, Fox Weather will “expand our ecosystem.”
There is hope Fox Weather will also broaden the roster of advertisers using a Fox News Media outlet. Candy manufacturers and soda marketers, not the typical buyers of ads in news and opinion content, are reserving inventory on Fox Weather, says Jeff Collins, executive vice president of ad sales at Fox News Media, in an interview. But the company is selling ad time to new advertisers as well as packages to pre-existing Fox News sponsors, he says, including four charter sponsors he declined to name. Advertisers can plan ideas around specific weather developments, he says, like storm coverage. Part of the appeal, he says, is that weather is “brand safe” and not likely to align advertisers with controversial content.
Fox is betting it can become a go-to resource for weather aficionados. One feature on the new app lets users keep tabs on how weather conditions are shaping up at coming events, like a daughter’s wedding, a trip to the Bahamas or a college reunion. Users will be able to tap 3-D radar to examine weather patterns and get alerts that inform them about 42 different weather elements that might harm people or property. Other services make users go to a website or behind a paywall for a 14-day forecast, Berg says. Fox Weather makes the next two weeks of weather projections available to all.
At the heart of the venture is the very personal connection consumers develop with their weather providers. Herrera, who will serve as an anchor during Fox Weather’s live-streamed programming, remembers times when he’d cancel a planned shopping trip to avoid people after he missed a forecast and the rain he said would arrive didn’t, or showed up hours later. “It’s important to own it. ‘I said this was going to happen. It didn’t. Let me tell you why it didn’t,’” he says. In a time of great change for the media industry, a different type of forecaster will have to examine whether Fox Weather can prevail amid shifting patterns.