Weather Tech: Sizing Up the Latest Goodies; Tools of Trade Continue Their Rapid Evolution

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It is a truism of local television news that weather is among the most popular segments of a newscast. The corollary, then, is that weather technology vendors are constantly looking to innovate and offer new products to serve local stations in the weather wars.

From VIPIR radar to Doppler radar, from real-time weather to hyper-local forecasting tools, leading weather technology vendors make it their business to offer the latest and greatest to stations, always looking for an edge.

Some of the most recent innovations include a greater focus on daily disruptive weather forecasting from WSI, the establishment of a hurricane center from AccuWeather, ZIP code-specific, real-time weather data from WeatherBug and more precise storm-tracking tools from WeatherData. In addition, most stations jockey for the chance to define their radar systems as the biggest, best and most powerful. The weather wars are indeed alive and well.

Here’s an overview of the newest tools:

Changing Focus

WSI, which provides weather technology to nearly 400 local news stations and cable news outlets in the United States, is focusing its marketing efforts on the disruptive weather capability now included in its weather forecasting systems. The concept of disruptive weather is different from severe weather, which includes events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, said Linda Maynard, VP of marketing at WSI. Disruptive weather refers to weather that impacts or changes one’s day, such as winds, snow, flooding or heat waves, she said.

“A day where fog is so thick it’s drizzling and makes roads really slick … it can disrupt your day and the commute can be a lot longer,” she said. While severe weather reporting is important, local stations can also maintain and grow their audiences by focusing on the daily ins and outs of weather, such as instances when it’s so cold that a parent won’t want the kids outside waiting for the school bus, she said.

WSI has developed new graphic images and icons to better depict such disruptive weather occurrences.

Faster Than Radar

Another new offering is the Precision Forecast component of WSI’s Vortex Severe Data product that is paired with its new Titan weather forecasting engine. The new forecasting ability captures breaking weather before it appears on the radar and offers a forecast that is 22 percent more accurate than most current forecast models for storm timing, intensity and location, Ms. Maynard said.

Also, in the online space, WSI’s desktop application now includes an “avatar” component, which allows stations to create a realistic animated version of their weathercasters that pops up on the computer screen to deliver breaking weather alerts. WSI has worked with the Raycom Media station group, which has sold a McDonald’s sponsorship for the avatar on its stations’ Web sites.

Desktop Characters

WSI isn’t alone in this new desktop character space. MyWeather formed a relationship with technology provider Rovion that enables MyWeather to offer a live-action video stream of a station’s weathercaster, creating the appearance of the local weathercaster walking onto the computer screen to deliver the alert.

The Rovion technology allows local stations to leverage their on-air personalities online, said Matt Peterson, president of MyWeather. Earlier this year the company introduced its Live Online desktop weather alert, and Mr. Peterson said enhancements to the MyWeather service include pushing weather alerts to other devices such as cellphones. The company currently does that through its Premium Weather service.

MyWeather’s sister company Weather Central earlier this month introduced WXPoint, a system and software to help cable operators get on air with a 24-hour local weather channel. It’s a different product from DTV Live, rolled out earlier this year for local broadcasters to launch local digital weather channels. Both products, though, fit into Weather Central’s strategy to provide weather services for cable, print, broadcast and online, said Steve Smedberg, director of marketing for Weather Central.

WeatherBug Zoom

WeatherBug is also ramping up its presence in the online space. The WeatherBug desktop added a new capability in September that lets users upload their digital photos of storms or local weather conditions to a station. The station then can select photos and send them to its WeatherBug Zoom tool for use on air. “It’s really getting the viewers to participate in providing content for the newscast,” said Stephanie Blozy, director of operations for media services at WeatherBug.

The new capability is live in about five markets now. Nearly 48 million WeatherBugs have been downloaded.

The WeatherBug Zoom solution brings live local weather from a particular neighborhood by drawing from WeatherBug’s network of about 7,000 weather stations around the country. The system allows stations to design background graphics and overlay the local weather data on top. “Weather is what draws viewers to a newscast, so if you can win weather you can win the rest of the newscast,” Ms. Blozy said. “The more local you can take your weathercast, the more viewers you will be reaching out to.” WeatherBug is partnered with about 106 stations representing nearly half of the designated market areas.

Hurricane Center

AccuWeather’s newest contribution comes in the formation in September of the AccuWeather Hurricane Center, which it calls the first independent hurricane center.

Like the National Hurricane Center, the AccuWeather facility is designed to provide alerts and updates to the public and the media. AccuWeather said the center is manned by a team of experts and the hurricane tracking includes providing details on the storm’s path and seven-day storm tracks.

“We have a good track record of forecasting hurricanes. This gives an independent second opinion to stations,” said Dr. Joel Meyers, AccuWeather’s founder, CEO and president.

Local stations that have used the center’s daily broadcast include ABC-owned WPVI-TV in Philadelphia, Scripps Howard-owned ABC affiliate WFTS-TV in Tampa, Fla., and Sinclair-owned WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. The center’s services have also been used by Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN and PBS.

Other new products and services from AccuWeather include its Local Digital Weather system, which allows a local TV station to produce its own 24-hour local weather channel. HD News, a channel on the Voom HD platform, uses the technology, as does Capitol Broadcasting-owned CBS affiliate WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C.

AccuWeather plans to introduce a new version of its flagship weather system Galileo next month. The new release should deliver severe weather information to air more quickly, Mr. Meyers said.

“That really drives maximum viewership, combining the latest radar with watches and warnings with showing the storms,” Mr. Meyers said.

Storm Hawk

WeatherData’s new Storm Hawk Reporter allows reporters to track storms via a PDA and send live weather information and radar images back to the station via cellphone or satellite phone. The Storm Hawk Reporter can report snow depths, ice thickness, traffic hazards, flooding, size of hail, high winds and other high-impact weather.

The device was used by storm chaser Jim Reed during his coverage of the recent hurricanes for ABC News. It tracks a storm’s location in a precise manner, said Mike Smith, CEO of WeatherData.

A reporter in the field can send that information back to the station to appear on air in less than 20 seconds. WeatherData planned to introduce this month the capability to do moving images in addition to still photos. Media General’s CBS station KWCH-TV in Wichita, Kan., used the device in August to photograph nearby tornadoes.

The station was first to receive the storm information and then notified the town, Mr. Smith said. KWCH “had its satellite truck in front of two homes destroyed by tornado. … Which station do you think had the competitive advantage?” Mr. Smith asked.

He contends that the Storm Hawk Reporter will be the most important advance in TV weather reporting since radar.

Doppler Radar

Radar is a
critical area and one that’s heavily promoted by TV stations. Many stations have invested heavily in radar systems and often tout their wares as the world’s most powerful Doppler radar or the market’s most powerful Doppler radar.

“It comes down to all of the selling points you have in the weather wars,” said Viki Regan, VP and general manager for Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach, Fla. WPBF bills its radar as 40 times more powerful than anything else in the marketplace.

“You look to be markedly different, yet you want to have parity so you have everything the other guys have, yet you want to have it with the other dimensions,” she said.

While most stations ultimately draw from the government’s radar, the differences are in how the tools are used by a broadcaster. “You could say Doppler is Doppler is Doppler, but the differentiation comes down to how effective your tool is in the hands of your weather specialist,” Ms. Regan said.

Many stations are also keen on the trendy VIPIR radar from Baron Services. VIPIR provides real-time rendering of different radar sites, said Skip Valet, news director of Post-Newsweek-owned CBS station WKMG-TV in Orlando, Fla.

“It’s just such a powerful tool in explaining the paths of these storms,” he said, referring to the role the radar played in coverage of this season’s hurricanes. “We have heavily marketed VIPIR.”