Higher ratings forecast for Weather Channel

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The Weather Channel is in the midst of a transformation, one that can be traced in part to an idle afternoon Al Roker spent surfing the Web a couple of years ago.

Pleased with the ratings earned by some new series, the network is increasing by 70 percent the amount of original programming it had planned to offer this year, and will debut at least one new show each month for the rest of the year.

Once the home primarily to meteorologists standing in front of maps, the new Weather Channel will be featuring Arctic pilots, iron workers, wind turbine and power line repairers, and Coast Guard rescuers in both icy and tropical climates.

“It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” said Michael Dingley, the network’s senior vice president of content and development, who came to the Weather Channel from HGTV 10 months ago. “You want to respect the core viewers, but let’s invite new viewers into the tent.”

That’s an old motivation for profit-hunting cable networks, who know the key to success is grabbing casual viewers and holding them. The same forces compelled MTV to move away from music videos two decades ago, and has transformed History into more than a place for musty war movies.

The Weather Channel recognized that it needed things to keep people watching for longer than it took for the next local forecast to pop up. Past attempts at programming, series like “Storm Stories,” tried this with a focus chiefly on the weather. Now network managers are embracing programs where the weather or other natural forces are just one of many characters.

The old Weather Channel wouldn’t have considered “Ice Road Truckers,” History’s hit series about freight haulers braving treacherous conditions in Canada, for example. Now it clearly would, since earlier this month the network premiered “Ice Pilots,” about people who fly in those same conditions.

“Coast Guard Alaska,” which details rescues in a forbidding climate, has done so well since its November premiere that the Weather Channel already has ordered a spinoff series involving a U.S. Coast Guard station in Florida.

The Coast Guard series come from Mr. Roker, who while Web surfing one afternoon noticed some rescue videos that the agency had posted on YouTube. He quickly set up a meeting with the Coast Guard to put the series together.

Viewers know Mr. Roker primarily for trading quips and giving forecasts as part of the “Today” show team, but off-screen he operates a thriving production company that supplies material to Spike, HGTV, A&E, the Cooking Channel and now the Weather Channel.

“The previous management didn’t really see the big picture,” Mr. Roker said. “They didn’t think the audience would watch these kinds of shows.”

The premiere of “Coast Guard Alaska” increased viewership in its time slot by 35 percent over the previous four weeks’ average, Nielsen said. The first “Ice Pilots” increased the audience size by 60 percent.

The Weather Channel feels freer to offer these series partly because up-to-date forecast information is available through TWC online or on mobile devices, Mr. Dingley said. The Weather Channel named a new chief executive in January whose top priority is growing the network’s website and mobile applications.

While the new shows have helped ratings, Weather Channel executives must be mindful of a wary fan base that insists upon weather being the top priority. Viewers were sharply critical last spring — and TWC meteorologist Jim Cantore tweeted an apology — when the network did not interrupt a movie to cover a tornado outbreak in Arkansas.

The network has ditched movies, Mr. Dingley said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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