Local broadcasters can't bring viewers close enough to the weather. The adoption of high-definition technology by local stations is allowing weather-graphics and radar vendors to provide ever more granular information, as the improved resolution and wider aspect ratio of HDTV allow stations to pack more detail and more data in their local weather maps. New radar technology is tackling severe weather coverage, and a greater use of Internet connectivity is letting meteorologists present more weather information than ever before, from both nearby and far afield.
Huntsville, Ala.-based Baron Services is targeting severe weather coverage with the new Baron Tornado Index (BTI), a tornado detection technology designed to help meteorologists pinpoint the most dangerous storms. The BTI, which is included in Baron's latest VIPIR (Volumetric Imaging and Processing of Integrated Radar) radar graphics system and will soon be available with its FasTrac storm-tracking product, uses proprietary algorithms combined with high-resolution radar data to gauge the likelihood of tornado development in any given storm. It assigns a number on a scale of 0-10 to show the likelihood of a tornado, with the number increasing with the risk.
Baron tested the BTI for almost a year before releasing it to clients. “We're very pleased with its success ratio in finding the most dangerous storms,” says Bob Baron, president and CEO of Baron Services. “It's of tremendous assistance to a meteorologist tracking multiple storms to say, 'This one, keep an eye on it.'”
Baron, which is the leading U.S. vendor of weather radars, is also gaining traction for its dual-polarization Doppler radar technology, which is now installed in seven local outlets including KELO Sioux Falls, S.D.; WRAL Raleigh, N.C.; WHNT Huntsville, Ala.; KRIV Houston; WFLD Chicago; WNYW New York; and Bay News 9 in Tampa, Fla. Dual-polarization radars differ from conventional Doppler radar systems, which transmit only a horizontal beam, by emitting both horizontal and vertical energy. Baron says that makes detection of specific precipitation types, such as rain versus snow, much easier. Baron recently teamed with L-3 Communications to win a five-year, $43 million contract to upgrade the National Weather Service's NEXRAD radars to dual-polarization capability.
About 250 stations use Baron's graphics products, and about 150 stations are radar customers. CEO Bob Baron says that a “substantial number of clients,” perhaps 70, have invested in high-definition technology, though fewer than half are actually using it in HD mode today. The move to HD's improved resolution has driven new features like MicroTrac, a capability of VIPIR that allows 3D storm tracking down to the hyper-local level.
“As we transition to hi-def, the demand from our client base is to get a lot closer in and show things at a lot shorter distance,” says Baron. “With MicroTrac, you can show people the path of a storm right through neighborhoods. Particularly because of the development of hi-def, that kind of approach is very, very popular.”
WeatherBug is capitalizing on stations' need for highly localized weather data with its proprietary network of more than 8,000 weather tracking stations and over 1,200 cameras, primarily based at neighborhood schools and public safety facilities across the U.S. The company, a unit of Germantown, Md.-based AWS Convergence Technologies, provides real-time weather data and video through the Internet to over 100 local stations, including big-market outlets such as Tribune's WPIX New York and WGN Chicago, Belo's KHOU Houston, and CBS owned-and-operated KYW Philadelphia and KDKA Pittsburgh, which began using WeatherBug last week.
Live data and images from the WeatherBug stations and cameras are delivered via the Internet and received by the WeatherBug Zoom system, a dedicated Dell PC at the station that functions as an on-air display system, generating graphics and allowing meteorologists to manipulate the video.
WeatherBug's pitch is that its second-by-second local data is far superior to hourly readings from National Weather Service sensors, and that it can provide live video without sending out a news truck. Its national network of cameras also gives stations a chance to easily show video of breaking weather in distant markets, without having to rely on a network news service or make arrangements with an out-of-market affiliate.
“All the consultants keep saying to focus on local, local,” says WeatherBug director of media services Don Sears. “But when weather becomes breaking news with an approaching storm, it can become more strategic to go outside the market.”
WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling uses WeatherBug to provide “ground-truth” about conditions throughout the Chicago area, supplementing WGN's own cameras mounted atop the John Hancock Building and at other strategic locations, and also to give an advance look at what kind of weather is coming viewers' way.
As a winter storm with plummeting temperatures and snow approached Chicago last Tuesday, Skilling pulled time-lapse video from WeatherBug cameras hundreds of miles away in southern Minnesota to show viewers how quickly conditions were deteriorating. The day before, he had used the same time-lapse feature to display the effects of a quick thaw throughout Chicago that melted snow on city sidewalks. Skilling also frequently uses WeatherBug to show live video, and says the quality is pretty good.
“There's something about being able to show a weather system and then illustrate it through a live camera,” says Skilling. “We use the cameras all the time.”
With local stations upgrading their newscasts to high-definition, WeatherBug plans to gradually upgrade its network of cameras to hi-def, starting in markets where it has affiliates already producing HD news.
Weather Central's latest product is a new automated weather alert system, LIVE:Wire HD, that can work in hi-def or standard-def resolutions and can be controlled through the desktop via a Web-based browser. The LIVE:Wire HD system, which sells for $35,000, only began beta-testing at WDJT Milwaukee in December, but proved reliable enough in storm coverage that Madison, Wis.-based Weather Central decided to officially release it last month.
LIVE:Wire HD's remote access can be an important feature for handling severe weather coverage, says Steve Smedberg, the company's VP of operations, particularly in off-hours or during difficult travel conditions. “A lot of times, in smaller markets in particular, the meteorologist is not in the station when bad weather breaks out,” says Smedberg. “If you have a way to get into the network at the station, then they can run the system from home via a VPN.”
With LIVE:Wire HD, one user interface can also be used to control multiple systems, which could prove handy for stations managing duopolies or station groups that use a centralized master control.
“If you have one user interface to control all of the crawl systems, if one turns red, the master control operator can click to that tab, see what's going on and decide to run the crawl,” says Smedberg.
Weather Central, which provides weather graphics to about 300 local stations and network clients like ABC's Good Morning America, has found some traction with its high-definition 3D:LIVE HD graphics product. The system has been adopted for HD newscasts at Belo's WFAA Dallas, KHOU Houston and KING Seattle, and ABC owned-and-operated KTRK Houston. 3D:LIVE HD costs around $60,000, with large-market stations typically buying two or three systems to support multiple newscasts.
AccuWeather has just released Version 2.0 of its high-definition 3D graphics system, CinemaLive HD, which is about to begin beta-testing at four stations. CinemaLive HD, first introduced at NAB 2007, includes extensive 3D modeling options, including the ability to create virtual sets, and offers special data such as real-time local storm reports and lightning data with real-time strike reports. AccuWeather founder, chairman and president Joel Myers thinks the virtual set options will prove popular for stations looking to get a competitive edge without breaking their budget.
“It allows a TV station to save millions of dollars, as they don't have to build a new set; they can build it virtually,” says Myers. “It's flexible and changeable, and allows for subtleties for different weather situations. And as a station finds they need to make some tweaks to their set, they can do it without having to take out a hammer and a saw.”
State College, Pa.-based AccuWeather has also released a new version of its SelectWarn severe weather system, which is marketed to stations as a cost-effective alternative to buying their own high-powered radar hardware that may cost $500,000 to $1 million. The system, which lists for $29,000 with a $1,300 monthly service fee, provides storm tracking, AccuRain precipitation data, graphics toolkits, high-resolution NEXRAD radar, real-time “ground-truth” data and Local Storm Reports, and geohazard maps of flooding and earthquakes. SelectWarn 3.0, developed by AccuWeather's WeatherData Services unit located in Wichita, Kan., includes enhanced on-air graphics support and a new window of movement to deliver specific time-of-arrival predictions for storms.
AccuWeather, which provides graphics systems to about 200 stations and forecast services to about 50, has also released a new version of its FirstWarn ScreenCrawler product, which automatically displays storm warnings from the National Weather Service. The system ingests data from the NOAA Weather Wire and automatically generates maps, crawls and logos as official bulletins are issued.
AccuWeather is continuing to gain affiliates for its Local AccuWeather Channel, which is primarily designed as a turnkey programming product for stations looking to provide a local 24-hour weather service through their digital spectrum. About 50 stations are up and running with the service, including big-market stations such as ABC owned-and-operated WABC New York, and Myers says it is holding its own against competitors The Weather Channel and NBC Weather Plus. AccuWeather has just signed up 15 new Local AccuWeather Channel affiliates that should go on-air this spring, including WDTV in the Bridgeport/Clarksburg, W.Va., market.
“It's going very well, and many stations are ahead of their projections with advertising revenue,” says Myers. “It's allowing stations to go to advertisers that had not previously bought on the analog side.”
Demand for hi-def weather graphics is starting to pick up for Andover, Mass.-based WSI Corp., which provides weather graphics to some 400 stations including ABC, NBC and CBS owned-and-operated stations; Post-Newsweek; Hearst-Argyle and Media General; and The Weather Channel (both The Weather Channel and WSI are owned by Landmark Communications).
WSI now has created HD versions of its core TrueView presentation product and Titan radar display product, and about 50 stations have purchased native HD systems, says Linda Maynard, WSI VP of marketing. She expects that number to spike due to competitive pressures in local markets.
“If you spend a couple grand on a TV, you want it to look more real,” says Maynard. “For the guys who are watching Sunrise Earth on Discovery HD Theater, when they watch the weather on channel 5 or channel 7, they want it to look more real.”
So WSI has not only improved the resolution of the graphics its systems render, but also created an additional data tier to provide more information in the HD screen. It has added more terrain data to its 3D fly-over and fly-through products to make them more compelling, according to Maynard, and its HD 3D satellite imaging product can show the actual cloud structures of large storms such as an East Coast “nor'easter.”
WSI has also improved the granularity of its proprietary forecast modeling product, RPM (Rapid Precision Mesoscale), by increasing its resolution from a range of 12 kilometers down to 4 kilometers. That makes it more accurate in predicting the path of storms and also shows the surprising differences in weather across a local area.
Says Maynard: “With that kind of super-resolution, you can see the subtleties in temperature differentiations and rainfall projections.”