Centralized weather operations are nothing new, but as
broadcasters look to cut costs and increase revenues from more local news and
weather, the concept is gaining more attention. It's not only about local
broadcasters looking to centralized weather services as a way of capping costs
while expanding production. These low-cost technologies are also providing a
growing number of smaller broadcasters, Websites and cable operators a way to
offer local weather without the pocketbook-breaking tab that comes with new
BroadcastWeather, for example, already provides local
weather to some 850 Web clients and broadcast stations in 27 DMAs from its
centralized Minneapolis facility.
Paul Douglas, founder and CEO of BroadcastWeather, got a
harsh lesson in the cost-cutting realities facing local stations when he was
laid off from CBS affiliate WCCO-TV in Minneapolis in 2008 after more than 10
years as the station's weatherman. After getting over his shock, Douglas
realized that local stations had to find more cost-effective ways to produce
local content. He started WeatherNation, which was recently rebranded as
BroadcastWeather, to produce local weather in a centralized location for
clients around the country.
"We can produce high quality HD local weather for
considerably less than what a station can do internally," notes Douglas. "We
charge maybe a third of what it would cost a station to hire a meteorologist
and the other support staff needed to do their own show."
Simple economies of scale are a key part of the cost
savings. "We have three HD studios and employ 10 meteorologists," each of whom
might produce 50 to 70 weather segments a day, Douglas explains. "We are here
seven days a week, 365 days a year and we operate out of three different
"It is a fully automated facility and self-directed
facility," with the meteorologists handling the entire production, adds Todd
Frostad, president and COO of BroadcastWeather. "All the content sources and
even the camera positions and angles are selected by the talent in real time so
there aren't any camera operators, director or producers."
All the content is shot in HD and then converted to whatever
format the client needs for standard definition or high-definition broadcasts,
as well as the necessary formats for online or mobile, Frostad explains.
This makes the facility an appealing option for stations
that want to move to high-definition weather or would like to expand their
online or mobile content but lack the recourses to make those upgrades, Frostad
Depending on the contract and the weather conditions,
clients may get updated forecasts anywhere from three to fourteen times a day
and the facility regularly offers live feeds during tornadoes, hurricanes,
blizzards and other severe weather.
"It is a fairly aggressive shift in the way weather is
produced and it takes a certain kind of meteorologist to pull this off, but in
the process it allows us to produce weather for considerably less," Douglas
Another major cost savings is in transmission. The
BroadcastWeather facility is located at a fiber optic Internet hub in the western
suburbs of Minneapolis. That connection offers upload speeds as high as 50
Megabits per second, which allows the company to send live HD feeds with MPEG-4
compression to clients with only four- or five-second delays. Pre-recorded
files are sent via FTP and automatically downloaded to clients' servers.
Internet delivery greatly reduces start-up costs for getting
centrally produced weathercasts. "The bottom line [is that] the Internet has
brought distribution costs way down, to a point where we can pass these savings
along to our clients and make the numbers work at a local level," says Douglas.
"To rely on traditional satellite uplinks, transponder time and conventional TV
studios would have made the price cost-prohibitive."
Making Centralized Feel Local
The use of outsourced local weather services does, however,
raise a number of important issues. Any station that outsourced its weather
simply to save costs might see a significant drop in ratings and revenue if
they started airing a lower-quality weather forecast with presenters who
mispronounced local cities or appeared to be unfamiliar with the region.
Such issues were particularly important to Insight
Communications when it launched a new channel, CN2, in Kentucky. That service
gets much of its programming from BroadcastWeather, which supplies local
forecasts and live weather coverage that is customized for five different cable
systems owned by Insight in Kentucky.
"Our customers identified weather as something they wanted
and this gave us a cost effective way of doing it," says Jason Keller, director
of public affairs at Insight Communications.
The MSO had, however, a number of major concerns about the
concept and wanted to make sure the weathercasts produced in Minnesota would
actually feel local to their customers in Kentucky.
"As Kentuckians and Southerners we have our own way of
saying things and we use phrases that are only native to this [area], so we
were very concerned initially about their ability" to produce a weathercast
that would not only offer local forecasts but look like it was done locally,
To overcome that problem, Insight put the meteorologists
through a bit of a linguistic boot camp.
The weathercasts, which are localized for five different
areas of Kentucky, also incorporate local images from traffic cams and other
sources to show actual local weather conditions.
On several occasions the meteorologists have gone live to
track severe storms, boosting the channel's value to local viewers, Keller
notes. "At one point they were live on the air for close to seven hours
tracking a storm as it came into the Evansville DMA and passed into Louisville
and then headed towards Lexington," he says.