People love to talk about the weather. And people listen to those who know what they're talking about — like meteorology guru Jim Cantore. But when Verizon FiOS unexpectedly dropped The Weather Channel (TWC) from its line-up on March 10, those voices went silent for the cable company's 5.5 million subscribers.
And people are distraught.
A protest website went up within hours: keeptheweatherchannel.com. Two weeks later, the TWC site records more than 600,000 visitors, 7 million alerts, and 27 million social messages. There's the woman whose elderly parents rely on the channel; a regular viewer who complained that Verizon has "taken away my friends"; and Tugboat Paul, who says his "life depends on accurate forecasts" from the channel.
TWC has long been a "must have" cable channel. As of February 2015, TWC went to 97 million homes, or 84 percent of U.S. households with a television — the highest national distribution of any cable channel, according to Nielsen estimates.
Verizon FiOS cut TWC and substituted the AccuWeather Network when its agreement with TWC expired. "Customers are increasingly accessing weather information not only from their TV but from a variety of online sources and apps," an email to cable customers said. The company would no longer negotiate with TWC: "This is a decision, not a dispute," Verizon spokesman Bob Elek told the media.
TWC says it offered Verizon its services, including the 24-hour Weatherscan, for a lower price than the previous contract. Yet Verizon opted for AccuWeather's fledgling TV expansion effort. Nothing against AccuWeather, but its cable network tells me the weather in Buffalo, New York and Tampa, Fla., in a city-to-city loop with no live coverage (One online commenter said the channel looks like it was produced in someone's garage). TWC, by contrast, has 30 years under its belt, and its live weather reportage remains unmatched.
Personally, I'm flying blind without TWC. Even with access to weather.com, I don't know the hows and whys of Maryland's fickle conditions. Will impending thunderstorms be dangerous or just flash-and-boom? With TWC, I'd learn how high and low weather systems across the nation could affect the mid-Atlantic region. And with Sam Champion panache. A cloud icon on my phone can't do that.
When I called Verizon to ask for TWC, the rep responded, with marked tone: "You would drop the number one cable provider over one channel?"
"Yes," I responded. "And you won't be number one if you treat your customers like this."
There's a bigger issue here. Cable companies can alter line-ups even though consumers sign contracts based on what's offered. Few regulations govern this; the FCC and Better Business Bureau usually consider such issues outside their jurisdiction. Yet Verizon has violated good customer service standards by summarily and without warning dropping a popular basic channel that subscribers could reasonably expect to continue.
TWC is not without detractors. Some consumers say it offers too much reality TV, like the gem hunting series "Prospectors" — an issue cited when DirecTV suspended the channel for three months in 2014. The claim has merit. Yet that's a trend with many cable info channels, including the History Channel and Discovery. TWC does offer local forecasts via Weatherscan and "Local on the 8s," and breaks into programming for live coverage of tornadoes or blizzards. Such guidance saves lives. Lives.
With 1,500-plus channels, Verizon can't offer two weather options? Communications companies "have been underestimating people's interest in the weather for decades," noted a 2014 article in Bloomberg Business.
There are other underlying factors. TWC and AccuWeather have battled for years, tagged as archrivals in such power struggles as ownership of the Internet domain name ".weather." And AccuWeather's recently appointed Chief Financial Officer, Edward Van Sader, was formerly CFO at TV Management, which oversees assets including Verizon's FiOS1 News. Mr. Van Sader's charge according to AccuWeather: "Guide global growth."
TWC also has weighed in on climate change, showing maps that reveal Earth's warmest months on record, despite the frigid U.S. Northeast. According to a 2012 Forbes article, Verizon, which contributes to both parties, has leaned Republican with nearly 60 percent of its PAC contributions. A majority of Republican lawmakers still dispute climate change.
Politics and boardroom deals aside, as a consumer I know this: I won't go through hurricane season, let alone any climate change fallout, without The Weather Channel. And who else will show us the magic of thundersnow? The ethereal beauty of moonbows? The awesome nature of sprites and 'blizzicanes'? For weather TLC, we need TWC.
If Verizon doesn't agree, I'll drop them.
J. Cavanaugh Simpson is an essayist and university lecturer in Baltimore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.