WeatherPlus Rises to the Challenge

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When NBC launched WeatherPlus late last year it intended for the digital cable weather network to be a local weather service as well as the weather engine for NBC. During the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, WeatherPlus proved its mettle in serving all of NBC.

“This was our first big test, and I could not be more proud of the way the team handled the responsibility and how we could be a resource for the rest of NBC,” said Mike Steib, general manager of WeatherPlus, which now reaches more than 80 NBC affiliates representing more than 72 percent of the country.

Hurricane Katrina is a two-part story-the storm itself and the much larger story of the aftermath. The role of WeatherPlus was in covering Katrina as a weather story. Much has been said and written about the work TV journalists did in covering the storm itself, but little has been said about the impact of WeatherPlus on the story or how the new weather kid on the block faced its first big hurdle-and a massive one at that.

Coverage of the storm was a trial by fire for the new network. The numbers indicate it played a big role at NBC, and NBC News executives said they now want WeatherPlus to have a bigger presence across the NBC News properties. During the hurricane, WeatherPlus served up more than 150 segments or reports for other NBC properties, including six for “NBC Nightly News,” nine for “Today,” four for CNBC and more than 100 for MSNBC, Mr. Steib said.

The presence of WeatherPlus was particularly useful in the editorial planning meetings in the days leading up to Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast, said Steve Capus, acting president for NBC News. At each of those meetings, WeatherPlus provided briefings on the status of the storm. “[WeatherPlus reporters] have never had such a prominent role,” Mr. Capus said. NBC then used that editorial guidance and meteorological advice to determine where to position its reporters and crews for the storm coverage.

“They had some very sobering words during the editorial meetings in which they would say, ‘I’m not so sure it makes sense to send somebody there because they will be in harm’s way,’ and they had some sobering assessments about how powerful the storm was going to be,” he said. “There were long details on where to deploy our correspondents, producers and satellite trucks, and we were literally asking the WeatherPlus reporters whether our trucks could stay on in certain locations.”

Because of that input, Mr. Capus said, he gives a lot of credit to WeatherPlus for NBC’s overall coverage of the storm. Without it, the shows would have had to rely solely on their own resources.

In the past the NBC-owned stations, for instance, would have augmented their coverage by drawing on resources from MSNBC, affiliate feed service NBC News Channel or the network, said Jay Ireland, president of NBC Universal Television Stations and the chairman of the NBC WeatherPlus board of directors. With Katrina, the stations didn’t have to. “The difference with WeatherPlus was the guys on the ground are meteorologists,” he said.

The service, available to viewers on the digital tier of many cable operators or over the air on digital TV, is a 24/7 service devoted solely to weather coverage. It’s staffed by four to five meteorologists and draws on the resources of the local weathercasters in its markets, since the network is a joint venture between NBC and the stations that participate. Because it’s a hybrid national/ local network, the on-air screen includes an L-shaped bar with local weather information at all times, even if the on-air reporter is discussing weather elsewhere, Mr. Steib explained.

WeatherPlus meteorologist Jeff Ranieri was the most visible across the various NBC properties during the storm. In the days leading up to the landfall, he was stationed on a stretch of beach near Biloxi, Miss. The night before landfall, he and his crew moved to safer ground several miles inland, finding that spot via satellite mapping and on-the-ground observations.

Based on the work done by WeatherPlus staffers, MSNBC has begun rebranding its weather breaks under the WeatherPlus moniker. That’s something NBC wants to see its owned stations do as well.

“Within the owned stations, we think it’s a good idea to brand the weather as ‘WeatherPlus,'” Mr. Ireland said. As part of that push, WeatherPlus will work to extend its brand and presence on the stations’ Web sites by building up online WeatherPlus content. Mr. Ireland wants to expand the service into the mobile phone platform as well and is talking with cellular carriers about developing a mobile product.