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Weather Channel's Sam Champion moving to primetime; Stephanie Abrams joining AMHQ

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In a shuffling of personnel, Atlanta-based Weather Channel is taking Sam Champion off mornings and giving him a less defined role during prime time starting November 2, according to a memo sent out to staff this morning. The network also said it will no longer greenlight original long-form programming.

"Over the next year," the memo said, "we expect to add more live hours back to our schedule after airing some great shows currently in development. Our most passionate fans come to us for the weather and the science behind the weather, not our original shows."

There will also be a three percent cut in staffing, meaning about 50 people will lose their jobs out of 1,400, according to CNNMoney's Brian Stelter , who posted his story about three minutes before I did, based on the Google News feed. (As a result I had to drop the "exclusive" from my headline. I thought for a moment I had it first, but it appears the Weather Channel gave Stelter an interview with the CEO ahead of time.)

I'm told layoffs were spread out across the network, including studio camera ops, graphics people, an overnight engineer, a satellite operations person, plus a few folks in finance and PR.

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With the previously announced end of "Wake Up With Al" at 5 a.m., Stephanie Abrams will return to Atlanta and help host "AMHQ." The memo does not mention Jim Cantore, who joined the "AMHQ" show earlier this year.  ("We are still working out all the talent for the mornings. Jim and Stephanie will remain but not sure how it will all be configured," a spokeswoman emailed me.)

The morning show will focus less on lifestyle (an effort to be more like "Today" or "GMA") and more on hardcore weather news.

Stephanie Abrams with Al Roker. CREDIT: Weather Channel

Al Roker will continue to help out with breaking news coverage, the memo said. His final "Wake Up With Al," which runs from 5 to 6 a.m. will air October 2 after six years.

"AMHQ" will then run from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and all show production will be out of Atlanta. "Wake Up With Al" was the only show shot out of New York and the memo said it was simply "cost prohibitive" to rent the space at 30 Rock.

Here's the portion of the memo regarding Champion, who joined the Weather Channel early last year from "Good Morning America."

In his new role, he will take the lead in expanding increased weather coverage into our primetime schedule. As part of this, he will work to create regular primetime shows that highlight the intersection of new technologies and weather. Working closely with Nora Zimmett, Sam will create editorial content and host on-screen segments as we launch our new “Local Now” product for OTT providers. His deep understanding of local television will be crucial in helping us build our network of local content with the major broadcast station groups.

The memo also said the network is simplifying its brand to focus on weather. This means the network will no longer develop long-form shows such as "Highway Thru Hell" and 'Why Planes Crash," which often air in prime time, overnights and weekends.

A few years ago, the Weather Channel invested a lot of money to draw viewers who might stick around for longer periods of time by creating programming that could also have aired on History Channel or A&E. This is a strategy CNN has embraced in the past couple of years with success.

But the Weather Channel has continued to struggle with slipping ratings as people choose to find their weather elsewhere, including the Weather Channel app. So the network is doubling down on serving its core fans and cutting production costs to meet its lowered revenue projections. The recent addition of a "Weather Underground" show from 6 to 8 p.m. is a way to keep the deep weather fans happy.

"We are connecting strong, loyal Weather Underground fans with The Weather Channel," the memo said. "The show has had several strong weeks since its launch; we will continue to innovate to build direct links with our most avid viewers."

Mike Bettes recently became host of the network's "Weather Underground" show from 6 to 8 p.m. weekdays. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

The Weather Channel's official press statement came out after I posted the original item:

Although The Weather Company’s Product & Technology business is rapidly growing and now the most profitable part of our company, the television industry is rapidly changing, and we must stay ahead of the curve to ensure the vitality and future of our TV network.

To this end, we've restructured our TV division to better align our content production and distribution with a focus on innovative models of storm coverage and strategic new products, such as our soon-to-be-launched OTT service. This shift in focus has resulted in the elimination of some our programming and positions.

Viewers turn to The Weather Channel and our experts for the most locally relevant and precise forecast, and for the best live coverage of severe weather events available anywhere on television. In a fragmented world where it’s no longer about scale but about a passionate core following, we recognize the need to be hyper-focused on providing our viewers exactly what they come to us for - weather.

As the most trusted brand in weather, The Weather Channel, with more than 200 meteorologists, will continue to provide our deep expertise to keep consumers safe and informed, anytime and on every screen.

CEO David Kenny told CNN's Stelter that overall TV spending will be reduced: "We're now a technology company that owns a TV channel, not a TV company."

 

 

About the Author

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

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