Tom O'Brien, the new president of the Weather Channel, checks out a promo Jim Cantore is shooting about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
Photo: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com
Photo: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Weather Channel’s new prez Tom O’Brien to maintain laser focus on weather expertise

Originally posted Wednesday, July 31, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Earlier this month, Jim Cantore and the entire film crew shot a promo wearing buzz cuts, white shirts, skinny ties and gray slacks. chance to dress up like a NASA engineer circa 1969. They were marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and the Weather Channel was celebrating the achievement using virtual reality green screening at its Atlanta headquarters not far from SunTrust Park. 

It was a lighthearted atmosphere and new president Tom O’Brien gleefully watched  and pow-wowed with Cantore and the staff.

Within 48 hours, the Weather Channel was in extreme weather, 24/7 live coverage of what would become Hurricane Barry hitting Louisiana. Cantore would be front and center as usual. 

OBrien, who joined the Weather Channel in February  said this reveals the yin and yang at the network. Some days, weather is relatively benign and the network can have some fun. But other days, they are a serious news channel covering the biggest weather events in the United States as the network has done for nearly four decades.

Coming from TV station owner Nexstar, he said switching over to this job was a no brainer.

“This is one of the top brands in the country,” O’Brien said. “Our job is to protect and save lives and we have some of the top experts in the world in meteorology working here.”

Byron Allen, who purchased the Weather Channel last year for $300 million, hired O’Brien. Allen owns one of the nation’s largest independent production companies, produces movies such as “47 Meters Down” and “Hostiles” and operates several TV networks and stations. 

O’Brien, on top of the Weather Channel, also oversees Allen’s TV stations and has known the entrepreneur for 25 years. 

He said he has no desire to change the current Weather Channel strategy: staying laser focused on weather. For a time, the station aired reality TV shows such as “Fat Guys in the Woods” that were more in line with reality shows on History and A&E in an attempt to broaden viewership during quieter times. 

But in the past four years, management dumped those shows and produce only weather specific programs such as “So You’d Think You’d Survive” and ‘Tornado Alley.” The station commits to live weather coverage 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays including its “Weather Underground” show targeting the most zealous weather trackers.

And when there’s a big weather event? The network quickly goes into round-the-clock live coverage. 

He raved about the network’s use of immersive mixed reality technology to graphically illustrate how extreme weather works. They insert hosts into virtual reality ice storms or storm surges. 

“We are very proud of what we are,” O’Brien said. “We know what we are not.”

As for climate change, he said he isn’t going to turn his hosts into political commentators. He likened the channel to umpires at a baseball game. “Our business is to call balls and strikes,” O’Brien said. “We report on the science behind the environment. We address it. It’s the basis behind our story telling.”

He is also not fazed by changing viewing habits that are taking people ever more into an on-demand streaming world. The Weather Channel can be streamed, too, he said. 

“We produce 5,000 hours of live programming a year,” he said. “To me, programming and content drives the business.”

And he added a common Weather Channel refrain: “We don’t have to pay our top employee: Mother Nature.”

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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