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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    Fox Weather to take on the Weather Channel

    The new Fox Weather studio in New York. (Zack DeZon/Bloomberg)

    Amid all the droughts, forest fires, floods, hurricanes and tornados that have battered America this year, Rupert Murdoch sees an opportunity to make it rain.

    On Oct. 25, Murdoch's media empire will launch Fox Weather, a new 24-hour streaming service, aiming to take on meteorological incumbents like the Weather Channel and capitalize on the increasingly frightening state of Earth's daily forecasts. As weather events grow more intense, Fox Corp. executives are betting that consumers are hungry for more than just an iPhone app that tells them the temperature and whether they should be carrying an umbrella.

    "We're looking to make weather more than just this utility," said Sharri Berg, president of Fox Weather.

    The new service will broadcast from a freshly refurbished studio on the 12th floor of Fox's Manhattan headquarters that once served as the anchor desk for former Fox News star Shepard Smith. During a recent tour of the new digs, Fox Weather showed off a battery of meteorological innovations, including something called the "The Sky Dome," a tricked-out studio ceiling, outfitted with LED lights, which will change color in concert with the time of day and the ever-shifting whims of the weather gods. When the forecasts get severe, the whole thing will glow red.

    "It's pretty dramatic," said Berg.

    The Fox Weather app is free and will generate revenue from advertising. It will feature a mix of programming generated from its central headquarters in New York, alongside regional weather updates from Fox's many local broadcast stations across the country. Among other novelties, the Fox Weather app has taken 3-D technology typically used in video games and repurposed it for radar, allowing users to zoom in and out of real-time images of developing storm systems.

    "3-D radar is something we couldn't even have dreamed of putting on TV 20 years ago," said Steve Baron, Fox Weather's senior vice president of digital product and strategy, who has been a meteorologist in markets like Gainesville, Florida, Salt Lake City and Chicago. "Now it's running on an iPhone. I think that's remarkable."

    For diehard sports fans and bettors, concerned about how the wind or rain or sunshine may impact upcoming games, Fox Weather will pull in data and live video feeds from professional and college stadiums via a partnership with WeatherSTEM.

    Fox Weather will also aim to make the science of meteorology more relevant to people's lives. Users can get alerts for 42 kinds of weather. They can learn about funnel clouds or graupel, a type of soft hail. When planning upcoming life events, Berg said, they can track forecasts several months into the future using the same data that many companies rely on to predict what supplies to buy for the following year.

    "I think wedding planners are going to want to advertise on this," Berg said.

    By squaring off against a well-established incumbent like the Weather Channel, Murdoch's new venture calls to mind some of the most audacious and successful gambits of his career, from challenging ABC, CBS and NBC with the advent of the Fox broadcast network in 1986 to taking on CNN with the launch of Fox News in 1996.

    The Weather Channel, for its part, isn't standing still. Next year, the network, which is backed by entrepreneur Byron Allen, will launch two streaming services, including one that will offer access to its signature TV network bundled with more than 50 news and entertainment channels. When asked about the challenge posed by Fox Weather, Allen said he doesn't feel threatened because of the Weather Channel's strong trust with viewers.

    "That isn't something you get overnight. You have to earn it from the American people over many decades," he said. "This is a 40-year-plus relationship with the American audience, and I don't think that will be disrupted in any way."

    If anything, he said, the competition from Fox Weather will only force the Weather Channel to get better. "There is no Muhammad Ali without George Foreman," he said.

    The Weather Channel is expected to generate $305 million in revenue in 2021, roughly the same as last year, largely from advertising and fees from pay-TV providers, according to Kagan, the media research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Moving forward, Allen sees the planet's intensifying weather as an opportunity for meteorologists to play a larger role in the lives of its customers. Viewers, he said, "are starting to connect he dots" that climate change is causing more severe weather "as they see their cars floating down the streets of Manhattan."

    From heat waves in the Pacific Northwest to the cold snap in Texas to the pummeling of the Northeast by Hurricane Ida, it has been a particularly dramatic and deadly year for weather. Fox's big push into the field is drawing skepticism, in part, because of how Fox News personalities have dismissed climate change. Last year, Rupert's son, James Murdoch, took the rare step of publicly criticizing the climate coverage by his family's businesses.

    Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State and author of the book "The New Climate War," called the Murdoch media empire "the greatest promoter of climate change disinformation over the past two decades."

    "We should assume, unless proven otherwise, that this network will be used to further promote climate denialism and fossil fuel industry talking points," Mann said in an email.

    Berg disputed the suggestion that Fox Weather will be turning a blind eye to climate change.

    "There is no doubt climate change exists, and its effects are part of our everyday lives," she said. "We will not be debating or ignoring it. We'll be translating the science and data into understandable information our audience needs."

    Fox Weather has hired about 40 meteorologists from across the country. It has also brought on board a number of storm chasers who will race around documenting the many hurricanes and tornadoes ripping across America.

    "If you're a meteorologist and a good storyteller, it's a good time to be you," said Carolyn Kane, president of NWT Group, a talent agency that represents meteorologists.

    Among Fox Weather's hires are Shane Brown, who previously worked for The Weather Channel, Nick Kosir, a social media star known at a Fox affiliate in Charlotte as "The Dancing Weatherman" and Amy Freeze, a former meteorologist at WABC-TV in New York. (Freeze got her start in Portland, Ore., because someone there thought her temperature-evoking last name would make her well-suited to the job).

    As weather patterns become more extreme, Freeze sees her job as being "either a call to action or a calming voice."

    "You alert people when they need to be alerted," she said. "Or you let them know everything is going to be OK when there's nothing to worry about."

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