Gary Arlen /
07.21.2004 12:00 AM
Weather Channel Forecast: Multimedia
Yes, everyone talks about the weather - especially at The Weather Channel (TWC), which keeps cranking out more versions of the meteorological morass. Increasingly, the outlook calls for programs and projects that extend well beyond TWC's "core" videocasts : the nonstop weather reports that have poured out of these Atlanta studios for more than two decades to cable systems around the country. TWC reaches 87 million homes: 95 percent of U.S. cable households.

For "weather weenies" (as TWC's most ardent devotees are known), the gusts and fronts, along with "watches" and "warnings," are moving ever-closer via multiple video and data delivery systems.

For the Landmark Communications-owned network, the technology expansion means installing faster data gathering-and-processing facilities. It also requires devising dynamic delivery mechanisms.

In addition to its well-trafficked weather.com Web site, TWC is expanding its IntelliStar local forecasts-now available in nearly 900 metro areas (and targeted for 1,700 markets by September). Moreover, 75 made-for-Web videos are produced daily for weather.com, offering local video weathercasts at specified moments.


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Behind the scenes at "The Weather Channel" is the Global Forecast Center, which is at the core of ensuring up-to-date, consistent forecasts across all the content platforms.
And then there are the customized variations for mobile phones, personal digital assistants and other portable devices. Not to mention a radio network (mainly feeding brief syndicated weather updates) plus a pilot partnership with WXIA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta. TWC's talent appears on the local broadcast channel, especially during severe weather periods. The relationship could become the prototype for meteorological alliances with other broadcast stations, although logistics may quickly overwhelm such ventures-especially since TV news departments are likely to seek TWC resources during stormy weather when the network itself is most stressed.

Despite all this cross-platform and multimedia development-with more in the works-TWC President Debora Wilson does not characterize this technical tsunami as an "integrated" service. She acknowledges that "integration is relevant for our infrastructure," a tautology for a single-themed network that gathers, packages-and repackages-then distributes the same content endlessly. Of course, TWC's raw material does change constantly-sometimes dramatically on stormy days.

"We're going from one big product to a whole lot of local products," Wilson explains. The process comes, she says, as TWC is "grappling with how to shift from a one-way path to a two-way path," a reference to the on-demand ventures that are part of all cable networks' video agenda.

"We're trying to make our information more micro-climate; more local."

BEYOND TELEVISION

"We were set up to optimize for TV production," Wilson says. "When the Internet arrived, we were challenged to modify [our structure] to support not just one additional product, but multiple products, and also [to develop] a greater depth of product than you can put on a television."

For example, she notes, "We heard from viewers that they were very interested in how weather affects their gardening. So we added information on when to plant tomatoes.

"As we brought in the ways in which we interact and develop content," Wilson continues, TWC adapted its content to viewers' life cycles-from morning television to mobile connections to desktop data and video. "We take the core product of The Weather Channel on whatever platform and device they want to get it. As someone moves through the day, different platforms are relevant to them."

Among TWC's latest offering for cable systems is IntelliStar, launched last December to create local weathercasts for cable affiliates. IntelliStar's roots are in previous TWC "Star" technologies, which used addressable receivers at the headend through which local conditions and forecasts are delivered.

"When you're able to respond to individual requirements, it opens up new opportunities," Wilson says-with an eye toward local advertising insertions that affiliates covet.

Another TWC venture brings the all-local-all-the-time approach to the digital cable environment. "Weatherscan" is a separate channel that is now seen by 7.7 million cable subscribers and available on Comcast, Cox, Charter and other cable systems passing 21 million homes. The text-and-graphics channel, also produced from Atlanta, features full-time coverage of conditions within each market. The entirely automated system does not include any local video input-yet.

TWC has pioneered interactive television projects through IntelliStar, its Internet businesses and other initiatives over the years.

"We've been on the leading and bleeding edge of interactive TV," Wilson admits. "Weather is so relevant to everybody. It's a constant category that's expendable on multiple platforms. Even though it may be early to understand the technical and consumer requirements for iTV, it encourages us to test and trial the new platforms before other networks try."

IT'S THE GRAPHICS!

To handle these multiple platforms, TWC is creating and supporting automation tools.

"We have a very large weather graphics installation," says Ian Miller, TWC's senior VP-weather systems, almost adding as an afterthought that it is "probably the largest in the private sector." Drawing data from a vast array of sources, including the National Weather Service and 150 individual radar systems around the U.S., the network's graphics computers generate "hundreds of thousands" of illustrations each day, Miller adds. Most of that volume comes via automated programs that are rendering the radar data as it is updated every six minutes.

Miller's challenge comes in the diversification issues. "The graphics needed for a wireless phone are much different from what you need on a TV set," he says. As TWC develops new products, it is engineering such capabilities into the hardware and software. For example, Miller notes that the new IntelliStar facilities "recognize if there are no changes in weather patterns and will go on to show something else," thus optimizing its processing power.

Yes, indeed. At The Weather Channel, they're talking about the weather. And doing something about it.

And it's not just for the weenies.


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