Weathercasts Receive a Dose of Health News

Mar 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

For years the weathercasts on local TV news programs have been beefed up with snazzy graphics and more meteorological science as a lure for viewers who understandably want to know whether or not they’ll need their galoshes in the morning.

Increasingly, broadcasters are being approached by information companies that think health reports-covering everything from pollen counts to how conditions might affect those who suffer from arthritis-provide an added attraction to weather segments.

Providers of these services are experiencing mixed results. Some are trying to sell the information as a separate health-related service that fits with weathercasts, while others are including it as part of the overall weather package.

AccuWeather, for example, includes such health and wellness data on its Web site and provides greater detail for its roughly 30 subscriber stations, which receive briefings as often as they request.

“We have the patented RealFeel Temperature Index,” said Michael Steinberg, senior VP of the Pennsylvania-based, privately held service. “It goes beyond the usual reporting. Say, if you’re told the wind-chill factor is 35, that’s based on temperature and wind speed. But we all know that if you’re standing in the sun, you’ll feel warmer. So our system is designed to let you know how you will feel in particular weather.”

This approach carries over into AccuWeather’s flu, pollen, arthritis and air quality indexes. With the flu, Mr. Steinberg notes, AccuWeather looks at the severity and transmission of flu. For example, if it’s flu season but the weather allows for people to be outdoors, the chances of being exposed to the flu are less than if there is precipitation and people are stuck indoors.

“Our information is focused on the audience,” Mr. Steinberg said. “It allows the meteorologist to actually explain the conditions. And for stations, it gives the viewer another reason to want to watch the weather.”

In addition to its briefings with 30 stations, AccuWeather says on its Web site that it provides its services to 200 stations, as well as to MSNBC and CNN.

But stations have shown often halting interest in adding health and wellness flashes and predictions into their daily and nightly weathercasts.

“We have a medical reporter [for that],” said Geoff Fox, weathercaster for ABC affiliate WTNH-TV in New Haven, Conn.

“I don’t know where such reports really fit into weather,” Mr. Fox said. “I mean, if I tell someone it’s going to snow the next day, they know how to dress or to leave for work earlier or to make sure they have enough milk in the house. But if I say it’s going to be a high pollen count the next day, what are they going to do-prepare not to breathe?”

Ted Linn, news director for CBS affiliate WANE-TV in Fort Wayne, Ind., said, “We do run a pollen count with the weather, but briefly. The station has been doing it since before I got here. I can’t say that it’s a big thing, but we’re in an area with a lot of allergy sufferers, so there is interest.”

Resistance to adding health information to weathercasts frustrates Jay Kress, CEO of Pollen.com, which is owned by surveillance data company SDI and offers a Web site with allergy forecasts as well as briefings for 20 subscriber stations.

“We have the most advanced system in the country for a four-day forecast for pollen, and we’ve been doing it for years,” he said. “But we can’t sell it. Radio stations are a lost cause and TV stations say, well, they can’t spend the money-and it’s only $1,000 [per year]. They say their sales guys can’t sell it. Yet the stations that do use our service are making money because they are able to sell to advertisers based on having our pollen count forecasts. And come on, that’s why stations run weathercasts-because they can sell them to advertisers.”

The list of pollen.com subscriber stations is “strictly confidential,” Mr. Kress said. But he hinted, “They are the stations that use our data to give predictions of pollen nine months or more ahead.”

“I think in the East or Midwest, where there are ongoing conditions, stations might have a greater interest in reporting arthritis and similar reports,” said Erin Dittman, spokeswoman for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. “But for us, we will give air quality indexes, but really only when it’s bad, particularly, say, when there’s been a major wild brush fire to show its effect on the entire region.”

But AccuWeather’s Mr. Steinberg thinks this may be a shortsighted approach.

“Ultimately, one of the keys to success in weather prediction is predicting impact,” he said. “Our service allows the newscast or weathercast to explain that impact, and health issues are tied right in. There’s a compelling reason to include them with the weather, and it’s to the benefit of the station to use health information as part of its service to the audience.”