With local cable and broadcast competition growing like a tropical storm in September, The Weather Channel will try to improve itself next year by offering an alternate regional feed during severe weather and more-customized local forecasts.
"It's an interesting opportunity to be both a national network and selectively local," says Bill Burke, president of The Weather Channel Companies. "That's a pretty big development."
The alternate feed will originate from a separate studio in the network's Atlanta facility. The beta test will be a service for the Plains States, Tornado Alley. If it draws viewers, services could be created for other areas prone to hurricanes, wildfires and blizzards.
"Alternative feeds will allow us to more effectively serve local markets," says TWC Chief Information Officer Brian Shield, "as we'll be able to break away from the core feed [during severe weather].
"Those viewers in Utah who are interested in tracking a hurricane will get the national-feed coverage," he explains, "but those who live in Florida or Texas would get specific hurricane coverage."
TWC also is improving the Intellistar system that generates the local forecasts. The new version, which will be installed at 1,700 cable headends, will allow up to 1,000 permutations of local forecasts, with the software interpreting the incoming data to determine which format is the most suitable for the viewing area.
"With Intellistar, the box will know that there are no clouds [on the map] and will move more quickly onto something that is more interesting," says Burke. "There are a lot of things that appear subtle, but we know from research that they'll make a big difference for people."
TWC may be feeling the heat. ABC and NBC and their affiliates are planning to offer weather channels via their DTV stations. Cable operators are offering 24-hour weather channels. And TV stations continue to push more weather into their regular newscasts.
Patrick Scott, president of The Weather Channel Networks, expects the technology changes to improve the "stickiness" of the channel. "We have a reach that is the envy of any TV network. In a given month, 60% of viewers tune in to our network. We have a huge sampling, but our challenge is to make people stay longer.
"We've got more data than you can imagine," he adds. "It's a question of collating it and passing it on so that the data is more useful to people."
Heavily text based, the current system also shows views of current Doppler radar and a graphical representation of a local forecast. With the new version, "some will get the marine forecast, others the weather almanac," says Shield. "They'll have new products unique to their area that will change dynamically."
Another new feature is audio. Current local forecasts are text only, but the new system will "read" the forecast to viewers. The background music will remain but will be pushed farther into the background during voiceovers.
The software system resides on a four-rack-unit Intel-based device that uses commodity hardware and software wherever possible.
To introduce the new services, TWC will start the upgrade in the top 25 markets, eventually reaching smaller markets and covering 89% of its 87 million households. Both Cox and Comcast have agreed to have the new system installed. The network is in discussion with its other MSOs and expects to have them on board within the next couple of months. Depending on the size of the system, an MSO can qualify for free upgrades, while those that don't will have to pay about $6,000.
The costs could be recouped with some of the new advertising opportunities provided by the system. Typically, local advertising opportunities, such as the ticker, have to be handled on a headend-by-headend basis. But the new system allows the MSO to use a Web-based system to send advertising content to specific headends, making it easier to handle both regional and national advertising.