Robin Berger / 08.20.2003 12:00AM
Weather Channel Takes Local Big-Time
'IntelliStar' allows countless permutations in thousands of headends
For a number of years now TV marketing gurus have insisted that localization is where the money is.
Well, you can't get a much more local application than a weather report.
"Localization is the hallmark of The Weather Channel," said the network's chief information officer Brian Shield. "The local portion of our programming is the most widely used segment."
Providing programming that is more geographically relevant to consumers -- and distribution equipment more user-friendly to cable operators -- spurred TWC's latest iteration of its WeatherStar platform, the fifth-generation "IntelliStar."
A PERFECT STORM
IntelliStar refers to each TWC digital platform server housed at the cable headends of the network's clients as well as a system that also includes the host device, which feeds each server from The Weather Channel, plus centralization control and distribution capabilities between the two, Shield explained.
"There's a fair amount of back office to it that drives out the configuration, distribution and management of the new product," he said. "It's far more robust -- there's a tremendous number of additional features to more effectively target programming and advertising content."
For starters, consider the programming input possibilities.
"We go from having about 44 permutations of what can show up on a local broadcast to, literally, a thousand," Shield insisted. Pre-defined (yet alterable) algorithms choose which of these capabilities are turned off or on at a given location at any given time, so that, for instance, Los Angeles programming can feature surf reports instead of 36-hour precipitation.
Shield also noted that future broadcasts would feature "a lot more motion and animation," including dynamic radar capabilities and a more compelling lower display for significant weather warnings (versus today's static icons). And instead of tuning into a three-day forecast of static icons and background music, there will be an option to have these details read aloud to subscribers.
IntelliStar also outputs an MPEG format to improve bandwidth efficiency-by four to six times, depending on the headend and its configuration, said Ross Kalber, TWC's VP of Engineering. And a Web-based tool lets cable companies better manage content on the local ad crawl.
TWC hopes that technicians will appreciate the strides it has taken to "bullet-proof" operations in "lights-out" situations. And, the device weighs about 60 percent less and takes up four rack units versus the seven required by its predecessor, the WeatherStar XL. "The WeatherStar XL was an improvement over the past in terms of video quality and certain capabilities," said Shield. "But it wasn't a platform that allowed us to develop applications in a very rapid fashion."
Shield credits today's higher processing speeds, open architecture, more efficient standardized devices and improved video capabilities for enabling TWC to produce such a high-quality product at an affordable price.
Keeping that in mind, Shield's team attempted to be as "off-the-shelf" and future-proofed as possible in designing IntelliStar. The platform uses a BSD (Unix-derived) operating system, as opposed to the less stable and secure IRIX (modified SGI product) used by WeatherStar XL.
The main exception to the "off the shelf" rule is IntelliStar's Thunderstorm component -- a 32-bit PCI card.
Shield says there was no standard option out there that could blend linear and nonlinear content, distribute output in different formats and integrate its components with various industry standards-in short, do all the things TWC's business required. Even after thinking about it for a while, the closest proxy on the market that Shield could come up with was TV Guide's very proprietary programming technology, which also relies on a server at the headend to locally generate content.
The difference between the insertion technology out there and Thunderstorm, explained Shield, is that Thunderstorm generates and inserts linear and nonlinear content in real time.
"The card is an audio-video subsystem device that allows you to decode data, overlay graphics and re-encode information in real time," he noted. "Thunderstorm is essentially the Weather Channel on a card."
As of this writing, 25 IntelliStar servers have been installed. TWC expects to upgrade another 100 to 125 cable headends by the end of the year and plans to have all the major MSOs redeployed with Intellistar devices (to about 2,000 of the 10,000 devices) by mid-2004. At that time, according to Shield, it will be serving in excess of 80 percent of all TWC households.
Although plans for the Intellistar platform now are limited to cable television, Shields said it could eventually expand to other distribution systems. "We've designed it as an open platform so that in the future, if other business opportunities arise, we can certainly take advantage of them," he said.