The Weather Channel’s Virtual Hurricanes Are Just the Beginning

Weather Channel/Screen Shot
Meteorologist Erika Navarro’s Sept. 13 virtual hurricane segment on the Weather Channel.

After buying TV assets for $300 million, Byron Allen is betting on tech wizardry, global expansion plans and brand awareness.

When meteorologist Erika Navarro appeared Sept. 13 on the Weather Channel standing on a North Carolina street about to be engulfed by a digital 10-foot wave of water caused by Hurricane Florence, the video went viral with 16.2 million views on Twitter. It may also have settled the question Byron Allen has been asked many times since purchasing the cable network in March for $300 million: "Why do people need the Weather Channel when they can get the forecast on an app on their smartphone?"

Navarro's segment came courtesy of Immersed Mixed Reality (IMR), an initiative launched in June by the Weather Channel months after Allen bought it from Comcast, Blackstone Group and Bain Capital. (IBM has owned assets like weather.com and the Weather Channel app since January 2016.)

Allen says the annual expenditure at the Atlanta-based channel exceeded $100 million when owned by those deep-pocketed investors and that he hasn't made cuts, so expect more tech wizardry. Other improvements include global expansion plans. "I own the Weather Channel 100 percent. There's no board of directors, no analysis of paralysis. You pitch, I like, and it's a go," Allen tells THR.

On TV, the Weather Channel may benefit from brand awareness over competitors like AccuWeather Network, launched on cable in 2007, and WeatherNation TV, a free-to-air channel that began in 2011.

Allen is mum on financials, but S&P Global Market Intelligence says it had 82 million subscribers in 2017. Cord-cutting should slice that to 78 million this year, though revenue is expected to rise slightly to $347 million. And Allen notes his channel was No. 1 in cable for several days during Florence's coastal downpour.

Will viewers tune in more regularly? "IMR is a neat trick," says Gabriel Kahn of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, "but it won't translate into more eyeballs."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.