Brand your channel

It is no secret that weather is a critical lure for local TV audiences. With that in mind, WRAL-TV in Raleigh-Durham, NC, has spent years strengthening that relationship by investing in increasingly sophisticated tools for creating and presenting timely and informative weather products, as well as branding those products for its market.

Last year, the broadcaster began researching the possibility of extending its weather brand to mobile devices, beginning with the iPad and iPhone. The goal was to provide viewers with instant access to the station's weather products.

The first question to answer was: Why a stand-alone app? The station already had a popular mobile site and a full-featured news app that includes weather. However, viewers wanted immediate, direct access to weather. The faster viewers could get to the information they needed, the happier they would be. Also, once in the app, people like to be able to dig into the forecasts and maps. A stand-alone weather platform would enable the station to build a targeted weather information platform that offered greater depth and immediacy.

The envisioned app would give viewers direct access to the current forecast. It would be quick and easy, with the type of interpreted data that people expect when they watch the station's meteorologists on-air. The broadcaster also wanted to embed the weather update video it had produced throughout the day. There had to be a close association between what people would get on-air, on the website and through the app. In addition, the solution would enable people to save favorite locations, which would make it easy for them to switch between, for example, their home and their work locations.

The standout feature was interactive radar. Radar maps are essential to engaging weather; people want to see where the weather is and where it is headed in order to plan their activities.

Branding was another important consideration. There is a lot invested in a station's identification. Therefore, it was critical that the mobile environment reflect WRAL's output on other platforms. While doing something new, the goal was not to reinvent the wheel. Rather, the station wanted to take advantage of the platform for its mobility and timeliness, but remain consistent across all platforms. Chief meteorologist Greg Fishel, who has been at the station since 1981, is a well-recognized face in the market and an important part of the trust that viewers put in the station. If the broadcaster was going to put Fishel's name on the “WRAL O-Fishel Weather app,” then the product had to match the standards and look of what is delivered to air.

Data key to the app

The station has a very capable technical team in house, which provided extensive expertise to evaluate the assets it had in place for the project.

Data was seen as the lynchpin to delivering the level of information the facility was after. Turning to its incumbent weather data provider, Weather Central, the station looked to see what would be required to reuse the data streams it already received for its on-air and Web presentations. Two options presented themselves. The first was for the broadcaster to simply purchase a specific data library tailored to its needs that would be packaged and delivered specifically for its Web app.

The second option, and what was ultimately chosen, was to take advantage of the weather provider's application programming interface (API). (See Figure 1) This would enable the station to establish a dynamic link between its app and a more comprehensive data set, giving it the flexibility to build a more sophisticated app environment. Using the API, the broadcaster gained access to a data set that includes 1km high-resolution forecasting models — essential for achieving the high precision or so-called “hyperlocal” level forecasts the station was after. That local-level data is essential to enabling the facility to distinguish itself from other weather apps on the market and enable it to personalize the app for its individual users.

The API also enables WRAL to maintain a real-time stream of updated data to the app, with a combination of forecast data from the weather service provider and the National Weather Service, all of which can overlay a map that automatically centers on the user or to any other location the user requests.

One of the goals for this system is to enable meteorological staff to publish their forecast once and for the information to be available for all of the station's platforms without having to manually reformat or recreate elements for each. This eliminates much of the repetition.

An on-site server-based content processor ingests and manages all of the interactive weather content from the weather data provider and the station. The processor formats and optimizes the content for delivery to the client software end-user devices such as phones and tablets. The city forecast information and interactive mapping data come directly from live data. The station provides an abundance of other weather information, including video forecasts from station meteorologists, DUALDoppler5000 images, alerts, current conditions, inclement weather closings, storm tracker and a weather almanac.

Of course, WRAL is a TV station first, so integrating local station video is important. The broadcaster designed the solution so that it could take the on-air weather breaks produced by its Fusion weather system and push the most current weather break to the app for viewing.

The facility partnered with app specialists News Over Wireless to construct the app environment. The client software is a custom interface that enables dynamic content based on user location and preferences. Users can adjust the tab bar navigation so the app loads their favorite content first, be it video, city forecast information, interactive maps or other content. They can opt in to receive push notification alerts from the station, and users can also add, delete and sequence cities to build their own list of favorite forecast locations.

The app offers a range of features to viewers such as geolocated interactive radar, which allows the audience to view weather down to the street level at their exact location. Forward-looking radar and forecasting provides users with a visual representation of forecasted precipitation, temperature, wind and more over an interactive map.

In evaluating the weather app options available on the market, the station decided that the system needed to be “white label,” meaning it would have 100 percent ownership of the screen real estate. Many systems co-brand the screen with their own bugs. The station had long since rejected such co-branding on-air and did not want it on any other platform. From the time a user downloads the app through its daily use, he or she only sees station branding.

The broadcaster launched its app through the iTunes app store this spring and has received positive feedback. The app continues to receive fine tuning based on feedback. By building an extensible app platform and taking advantage of a deep data set, the broadcaster can evolve its platform as needs change.

Evan Sirof is the president of MarComm-On-Call.