NEW YORK -- The Weather Channel is trying a novel approach to turn around some flagging ratings: It is re-emphasizing weather.
As part of a redesign that debuted last week, viewers will be able to see their local forecasts on-screen whenever they tune in, even during commercials. The NBC Universal-owned network is also increasing its capacity to cast aside regular programming during severe weather conditions.
"Think of it as the ESPN for weather," said David Clark, network president.
Effectively, The Weather Channel is trying to have it both ways by re-engaging the weather nerds and not abandoning shows that offer more than a forecast. The network began introducing longer-form programs like "Storm Stories" a few years ago for the same business reason that MTV largely stopped playing videos -- to encourage viewers to hang around for more than a few minutes at a time.
The strategy risked alienating longtime fans like Tony Kornheiser of ESPN, who would much rather see colorful weather maps and meteorologist Jim Cantore standing outside in the wind and rain.
"I stayed until a few years ago when I got the sense they were programming a television network and not giving the weather anymore," Kornheiser said.
The Weather Channel has averaged 210,000 viewers over the past year and 284,000 during the morning hours that represent its peak viewing period, the Nielsen company said. Those are the lowest averages in the past five years; in 2011 the network averaged 271,000 viewers for the full day and 362,000 in the morning.
The channel is now turning over about a third of its screen to constantly shifting weather information, including hour-by-hour forecasts for a viewer's local area and a crawl that offers weather highlights from across the country. On its high-definition channel, additional information like tides, sunrise and sunset, average temperatures and airport delays are displayed.
Designers tried to pack in the information without the screen looking too busy. The channel has also redesigned its regular, more detailed local forecast, shown every 10 minutes.
Some of the network's biggest ratings come when a big snowstorm is bearing down on the East Coast or a hurricane is ready to make landfall, newsworthy events that are covered full-time.
Now, The Weather Channel will be able to localize such specialized coverage: if severe weather is threatening the Midwest, for example, the channel in those areas will follow it full-time while other parts of the country will stay in regular programming. Clark said this might happen some 100 to 150 days of the year.
"That's just an estimate," he said. "Weather is unpredictable."
The Weather Channel is not abandoning its long-form programming but is trying to make these shows more focused on science and the weather so they don't seem like they could be on any other channel, Clark said. He cited "Iron Men," a series about construction workers on high-rise buildings, as one that didn't work because it didn't fit the brand. Better fitting the new direction is "Freaks of Nature," a show about people with unusual abilities to withstand the elements.
The Weather Channel has some 220 meteorologists on staff and needs to better tap their passion, he said.
"We're entering a phase where we're trying to be very disciplined about the brand," he said.