Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, having revolutionised the cable landscape in the 1990s with its tub-thumping punditry, has set its sights on another heated topic: the weather.
Fox News on Monday will launch a new app to stream weather programming live, 24 hours a day.
As extreme flooding, devastating hurricanes, uncontrollable wildfires and ice storms have hit the US in the past year, an unlikely battle is brewing in the media business, as companies bet that programming about climate disasters will draw audiences.
The weather endeavour pits Lachlan Murdoch, the Fox chief executive who has invested $10m in the push, more directly in competition with his brother James, who last year slammed his family’s news properties for promoting false scepticism about climate change as deadly bushfires tore across Australia.
James and Kathryn Murdoch have recently committed millions of dollars to fund climate change reporting at the Associated Press, according to people familiar with the matter.
Fox’s move into weather comes as cable news networks, including Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, have suffered audience declines this year as the news cycle calmed with Donald Trump out of office. Cable television is also under existential pressure, as more Americans cancel their pay-TV packages every year in favour of streaming.
As the weather has grown increasingly apocalyptic, Byron Allen, owner of the Weather Channel, said American audiences had flocked to his network for minute-by-minute updates during storms such as Hurricane Ida.
“When you’re watching your car float down the street in the middle of downtown Manhattan, it’s reached a point that you can’t debate it,” said Allen, who in 2018 bought the Weather Channel for $300m.
“Rupert Murdoch is one of the greatest media moguls ever. I’ve read everything about him and I’ve studied all his moves,” Allen added. “I would have been disappointed if he didn’t come into the weather news business.”
Fox News has devoted more than 120 meteorologists to its weather unit and invested in a shiny new studio at its Manhattan headquarters, where the ceiling will change colours with the weather, turning red during severe events. The app, which is free and will make money from advertisements, offers users 3D radar to zoom in on real-time footage of storms, along with a feature to track forecasts for future events like a wedding or birthday.
Some observers question whether Fox News will face a credibility problem. Some of the network’s biggest stars have repeatedly cast doubt on the seriousness of climate change. Host Tucker Carlson last year said the threat of climate change was a liberal invention, like “systemic racism in the sky”. He claimed there was “no evidence” that rising global temperatures caused severe wildfires on the US west coast.
“We present weather without hype or hyperbole,” said Jonathan Porter, chief meteorologist at AccuWeather, a private forecaster. “We’ve seen so many companies come into the weather space over the decades and not succeed. It takes specialised infrastructure, built upon science.”
Brian Wieser, head of business intelligence at ad agency GroupM, puts it more bluntly. “Credibility will be a big issue,” he said. “Even if they take a line of ‘both sides get a voice’, that’s politicised. There is exactly one answer, from a scientific consensus, on what the weather is.”
Sharri Berg, who is leading Fox Weather, has said that the service will be “reporting facts” and climate change is “not going to be ignored”.
Fox’s weather streaming service is the latest investment made by Lachlan Murdoch towards a digital future. The older son of Rupert Murdoch previously spearheaded the company’s $440m acquisition of streaming service Tubi, as well as a Fox News-branded streaming service called Fox Nation.
When Fox Nation first launched, the service was focused on its bread and butter news and opinion programming, with shows such as Un-PC. But in recent months the company has sought to broaden its scope towards general entertainment, with true crime shows and Clint Eastwood films.
“[Fox News] is more than a news brand. It is a lifestyle brand,” said Jason Klarman, who worked on the launch of Fox News in the 1990s and is now the president of Fox Nation. “As you go broader, there’s a bigger opportunity.” Analyst MoffettNathanson estimates Fox Nation has between 1m and 1.2m subscribers.
As Hollywood moves online, the best dramas and comedies are now largely found on streaming services, not television. But live news and sports still attract millions of TV viewers, bringing in billions of dollars for companies such as Fox.
These groups are trying to prepare for the future while not cannibalising their lucrative television channels. “I don’t think streaming news can ever be on the scale financially that the cable bundle was. They have to stick around on TV for as long as it exists,” said Rich Greenfield, partner at LightShed, a media consultancy.
Klarman believes there will “always be an audience for news on television”.
“What that looks like will evolve and change,” he said. “We are looking around the corner.”
Additional reporting by James Fontanella-Khan in New York