By Joe Flint
7:13 PM EST, December 25, 2013
Some heavy storms may be headed toward the Weather Channel.
DirecTV, the El Segundo satellite broadcaster with more than 20 million subscribers around the country, has quietly started distributing a network called WeatherNation just as its deal to carry the Weather Channel is set to expire.
Although talks between the two companies are ongoing, DirecTV's decision to add WeatherNation is seen as a not-so-subtle threat that it is willing to drop the Weather Channel.
Not only is DirecTV carrying WeatherNation, a small channel with very little reach or viewership, it has placed the network next to the Weather Channel on the dial, a move that could confuse viewers — and has already annoyed Weather Channel executives.
DirecTV, like many distributors, is eager to find ways to reduce programming costs. With sports programming driving up fees to carry channels such as Time Warner's TNT and TBS, distributors often try to squeeze smaller programmers as a way to save costs.
According to SNL Kagan, an industry consulting firm, the Weather Channel charges about 13 cents per subscriber per month.
Spokespeople for DirecTV and the Weather Channel declined to comment on their talks. The carriage agreement expires at the end of the year.
WeatherNation, based in Denver, was also used by satellite broadcaster Dish Network as a pawn when it was negotiating with Weather Channel three years ago. The two ultimately reached a new accord without viewers losing the network.
For the Weather Channel, the fight with one of its largest distributors comes at a crucial time. The network, co-owned by the private equity firms Bain Capital and Blackstone Group and Comcast Corp.'s NBCUniversal, has been making significant investments in talent and management in an effort to broaden its reach and appeal.
This month, the Weather Channel wooed popular "Good Morning America" weatherman Sam Champion away from ABC News to host a new morning show launching early next year. Not only will Champion instantaneously become the biggest face on the network, he will also serve in an executive role as managing editor.
Behind the scenes, the channel has also been bringing in executives with more entertainment experience. Last year, it hired David Clark as president. Clark's resume includes stints at the music channel Fuse and MTV. Also, former Fox Television Chairman Sandy Grushow joined the channel's board of directors.
Ratings for the Weather Channel, which often wins praise from viewers and public officials, are relatively small unless there is a big storm. Then its audience skyrockets. Last year, its reporting on Superstorm Sandy averaged close to 1.5 million viewers a day. Almost 40 million people watched at least a few minutes of the channel's storm coverage.
But on a typical day it is averaging just over 200,000 viewers, according to Nielsen.
The Weather Channel has long sought to expand beyond forecasts without alienating its core audience of weather geeks. There have been some missteps along the way, such as when the channel began to program movies such as "Misery" and "The Perfect Storm" that have weather-related plots.
Some distributors and viewers complained the channel was moving too far away from its original mission, and the movies were dropped.
The network instead has started carrying more weather-related nonfiction shows such as "Highway Thru Hell," described as "a series about man versus Mother Nature," and "Breaking Ice," about ships that travel through ice-covered waters.
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