With App Revamp, Weather Channel Downplays ‘Utility’ In Favor Of ‘Stories”

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A lot of media companies took the opportunity of Apple’s iOS 5 upgrade to refurbish their apps for the iPhone and iPad. The Weather Channel’s free apps have been pretty successful — the iPhone one has been downloaded over 21 million times and the iPad version is up to 5.2 million. But as the space gets crowded with basic “utilities” that all give the same forecasts, the cable network has given its apps a makeover that is intended to capture more of the visual and storytelling qualities that it has on TV.

Over the summer, The Weather Channel’s cable and mobile offerings received heavy use thanks to a series of devastating storms, such as Hurricane Irene which battered the east coast in August and attracted non-stop coverage for a week. Around the weekend that the storm hit, The Weather Channel was number one among TV news networks over the three-day period surrounding the hurricane, according to Nielsen Media Research. In addition, TWC mobile site drew more than 9.7 million page views on the Wednesday before.

But the iPhone and iPad apps didn’t offer much beyond basic weather readings. While “storm of the century” is mentioned with increasing frequency, The Weather Channel has been benefiting from the wild meteorological swings that have been occurring lately. With all that attention, the network began plotting a major revamp of its apps about 5 months ago.

“We were one of the media launch partners when the iPad came out in April 2010,” said Cameron Clayton, EVP of Digital Product for The Weather Channel, in an interview with paidContent. “And although Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) shared the iPad with us before the public release, they only gave us three weeks to come up with something.”

Among the bells and whistles that come with the updated apps, The Weather Channel has taken inspiration from Google Earth, with its 3D spinning globe and satellite geo-tagging map abilities, and social reader Flipboard in terms of its look and photo sharing features.

The Weather Channel also plans to take more time in issuing new apps; Clayton expects to roll the new format out on Amazon’s Fire tablet sometime next month.

While there are no plans to connect its TV programming to mobile devices through TV Everywhere authentication system, The Weather Channel’s cable show, From The Edge With Peter Lik will be linked live to the iPad through Nielsen’s Media-Sync Platform, which has been used by ABC’s iPad app as well. The Nielsen platform used audio watermarks to automatically open up features related to program that’s being watched on TV. In The Weather Channel’s case, it will show “behind the scenes” of From The Edge. Other shows will be added over the next few months.

Clayton and his team are also considering offering some form of paid, premium content down the road, but for the most part, The Weather Channel’s apps will rely strictly on ad support. Westin Hotels is the main relaunch sponsor for the next two weeks, but they are exclusive only to the launch screen and forecast screens. “Our chief goal is to build a large audience that connects iPad users to our TV programming,” Clayton said. “A paid model is not part of our thinking.”

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