The Arms Race for Weather Lovers Has Begun

New streaming services from Fox and the Weather Channel are betting big on the idea that an armchair meteorologist lives inside each of us.

Black-and-white image of a meteorologist pointing to a map with a cutout of a forest fire superimposed
H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty; Josh Edelson / AFP /Getty; The Atlantic

The weather, often derided as a mundane conversation topic of last resort, has actually been a prolific source of entertainment. Natural disasters drive big-budget blockbusters. Solar power fuels Lorde’s latest single. Double rainbows produced a lasting meme. But is the weather worthy of an entire streaming service?

Fox certainly thinks so. This fall, the network is set to launch Fox Weather, a platform for meteorology programming 24/7, rain or shine.* So does the Weather Channel, which is starting a streaming service it hopes will have 30 million subscribers by 2026—a far cry from Netflix’s more than 200 million subscribers, but on par with smaller streamers such as HBO Max and Hulu. According to The New York Times, these impending launches have led to bidding wars over star TV meteorologists, the building of posh new high-tech studios, and debates over the potential influence on public opinion: The prospect of Fox Weather is already worrying many, given the network’s history of climate-change denial.

Yet the moves also make sense. As more severe-weather events occur, putting more lives at risk, Fox and the Weather Channel are banking on there being an audience for around-the-clock coverage of our skies. Keeping up with weather has always been a ubiquitous and routine activity; the elements play a part in how we dress, what we do, where we travel. The accessibility and universality of weather talk can bind a community together: Local anchors can become celebrities in their own right, while photos of lightning storms and first snows populate Instagram feeds and get featured by hometown stations. All it takes is a deviation from the norm—say, when a record-breaking heat wave rolls in or wildfires produce orange skies—for viewers who normally only look for daily highs and lows to make the leap to obsessive analysis about pressure systems and dew points.

No one better understands why weather’s always on our radar than the weather stans who have built a robust online community of Facebook groups, fan sites, and forums. Some enthusiasts, such as the 24-year-old weather blogger Kelsie Nelson, have funneled childhood obsessions into meteorology degrees. “People like the Weather Channel,” she insisted to me over the phone with a laugh. She admitted, though, that she’s a little taken aback by the idea of multiple streaming services competing for her attention: “I’m not 100 percent sure how many people would subscribe.”

Still, for Nelson, weather programming is a necessity that deserves a greater audience. As a child, she had been afraid of “a lot of weather things”—thunderstorms and natural disasters, which she stopped fearing only after she began tuning in to the Weather Channel after school. She’d watch Storm Stories, the series about notable, well, storms. In college, she’d follow the channel’s coverage and use her own radar to confirm the experts’ insights. The day DirecTV restored the Weather Channel to its lineup in 2014, after having removed it earlier that year, was “one of the happiest days ever,” she told me.

Charlie Phillips, a 28-year-old meteorologist and the founder of WeatherTogether, a network of blogs devoted to climate coverage, told me that he began watching the Weather Channel “religiously” after experiencing a downpour in his childhood. “I saw this giant thunderstorm, and it just captivated me,” he said. From there he’d always catch the “Local on the 8s” segments, which offered neighborhood updates, and keep up with his favorite meteorologists. (He preferred the ones who were more into the “science-y, geeky stuff,” he added.)

That curiosity about natural phenomena will be crucial for the forthcoming streaming services; the possibility of spectacle is part of the allure of watching the skies. “Some weather is admittedly kind of boring,” Phillips said. “But if you see a lightning storm, or strong winds and heavy rain, or a surprise snowstorm? Something like that is pretty exceptional.”

There’s an adrenaline rush to watching jaw-dropping reports, in other words—“in the same way of breaking news,” Phillips explained, only it involves shots of “the guy who has his umbrella against these howling winds,” and an awe that doesn’t come with typical headlines. Weather is perpetrated by a somewhat predictable but ultimately uncontrollable force, and no Hollywood disaster flick can fully replicate the effects, those forces majeures that can enthrall, shock, or even humble.

“You’re seeing people trapped in floodwaters, hurricanes, storm surges … and you just realize how small humans are, and how fragile life is,” Nelson said. “You become a lot more thankful for what you have, because you know that at any minute, it can be taken away.” Indeed, extreme weather events have a human toll, especially for vulnerable parts of the country and for exhausted climate reporters who cover such turmoil. As these events increase in frequency, weather coverage will become more necessary—and more unnerving to watch.

With Nelson’s words in mind, I tuned in to the Weather Channel for the first time in years. The coverage focused on tracking Tropical Storm Elsa as it swept up the East coast, and I watched as a meteorologist gravely traced the path, scrawling circles on a map to point to vulnerable sites where tornadoes could spawn. “Not a heavily populated area,” he narrated as he drew another target with a flick of his wrist, “but nonetheless a concern.” The segment then cut to a live feed of a beach. “Boy, those waves are really starting to pick up,” the anchor said. “More storms, more rain. Not what you want to hear.” The footage looked apocalyptic—high winds, gray skies, no one in sight. The scene was grim. The anchor looked grim. I felt grim. But I also found it hard to look away.

* This story previously misstated that Fox announced its new weather channel this week. In fact, the announcement was made last December.