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Eyes in the Sky


Weather reports have been part of television since its inception as a broadcast service; traffic reporting took a little longer to reach the medium, but is also now a big part of the operation and most large and medium market stations.

When there’s a major storm or other meteorological event brewing, there’s no question of dumping regular programming and locking down exclusively on storm news.

NY1 traffic reporter Jamie Shupak using Beat the Traffic’s on-air system. This was especially true during Hurricane Irene’s assault on the U.S. East Coast in late August 2011. Hartford television station WVIT, which identifies as NBC Connecticut, was one of those broadcast operations that stayed on top of the massive storm as it plowed up the East Coast and into New England. Keith Barbaria, director of technology and engineering at NBC Connecticut attributes at least some of the interest in his station’s storm coverage to today’s social media.

CONVERSATIONAL COVERAGE

“Our news department did cut-ins and updates starting days before the storm, and stayed on the air wall-to-wall during the storm and on-line with Facebook and Ustream using our weather tools in a complete assault to get weather information, storm outages, and other critical information out to the public,” Barberia said. “And our viewers responded, tuning into us to help them get through the storm and its aftermath. People came to use and stayed with us through the storm.”

WVIT is owned by NBCUniversal, and during the storm linked up with other East Coast NBC-owned stations, along with The Weather Channel and NBC News to share reporting resources. This linkage of reporting assets and tools allowed Connecticut residents to follow the hurricane’s progress in detail, and prepare as it made its way along the coast and into New England.

NBC Connecticut’s chief meteorologist, Brad Field, who’s been forecasting weather for television audiences for 32 years, reflected on the changes he’s seen in terms of weather presentation and prediction tools.

“When I started, we were using magnetic boards and stick-on H’s and L’s for highs and lows,” Field said. “Also, I had to access satellite images via dial-up modem. Now I can look at satellite data and see storm progression on an instantaneous basis the moment I enter the station.”

Field also reflected on the progress made in the tracking of storms via radar.

“The thing that has really come leaps and bounds is NEXRAD Level II Doppler data. It takes essentially six minutes to complete a 360-degree radar sweep. So originally, it would take six minutes to get this data. Now, with Level II, we get this information as the antenna rotates so it’s 100 percent up-to-date. It’s really important to know where a tornado is now, not six minutes ago.”

VIEWER-ASSISTED REPORTING

File-based workflows and mobile phone technology have also helped to speed up on-air presentation of weather information.

“It’s really wonderful,” Field said. “We had a picture of a local weather event from a viewer in Tolland, Conn., arrive at 3:45 this morning. Our early morning meteorologist was able to turn this around and get it on the air for our 4:30 a.m. newscast. People are also using their cellphones to capture weather events and send images to the station where we can immediately access them and get them on the air.”

WPSD-TV, an independent NBC affiliate in Paducah, Ky., is also aggressive in its weather reporting, providing 17 to 20 reports per day.

Jennifer Rukavina is chief meteorologist at that station and observed one of the technologies that has evolved considerably in recent years is graphics.

“TruVu Max is becoming the graphics standard,” said Rukavina. “It allows us to do storytelling with some added detail for the general public. We’re able to create our own graphics and put information into different forms to better explain forecasts. Meteorologists are not locked into one kind of story telling anymore.”

Rukavina also noted that social media had had a big impact in making weather reporting more immediate and timely.

“We have delved rather heavily into Facebook, and somewhat into Twitter,” Rukavina said. “We’re now able to get real-time weather reports, rainfall totals and severe weather alert information. We put out a call and get 20 or so responses instantly. Bigger weather events product 30 to 50 responses. This is useful in telling us if we need to stay on the air longer to keep tracking severe weather.”

AVOIDING GRIDLOCK

WSI’s TruVu Max renders weather graphics in real time. Traffic reports were once confined to radio stations, but TV stations have jumped on the bandwagon too, especially with the advent of TV delivery to handheld devices and social media.

One of the companies to recognize the potential of television’s evolving reach is Beat the Traffic. It was launched more than 10 years ago and now provides service to some 56 North American television operations. Andre Gueziec, Beat the Traffic’s president and CEO, explained that—just as with weather information—what broadcasters report has little value unless it’s immediate and localized.

“We came into being when much of the traffic reporting was being done by Metro Traffic which offered the same service to everybody and was really intended for the radio,” Gueziec said. “My company thought it could provide a much more informative presentation, using television to its maximum in providing traffic information. When we launched, we were immediately rewarded with inquiries from quite a few stations.”

Gueziec observed that real-time traffic reporting by TV stations has become a necessity and has basically followed the same track as weather reporting.

“I would say that it’s evolving like weather reporting in the sense that many stations have decided to produce their own reports and come to companies such as ours for reporting tools and data.”

NEW TOOLS FOR TRAFFIC

The computer and digital era has also greatly increased traffic reporting power by providing small and relatively inexpensive television cameras, along with robotic remote control and a number of connectivity options. This revolution in miniature has made it possible for stations to have a greater number of such “eyes in the sky” for monitoring traffic flow problems.

“We’ve been using tower cams for probably 15 years or so; I’ve been with the station for 13 years and they were here when I started,” said Dale Cassidy, chief engineer of KTBS-TV, the ABC affiliate in Shreveport, La. “We’re now running four remote cameras with dedicated microwave links and are currently in the process of tying into the Louisiana Department of Transportation to share [traffic camera] access.”

He observed that a lack of inexpensive connectivity was slowing his station’s plans to deploy additional cameras at traffic hot spots, though.

“The cameras are a great asset to us and we’re looking at upgrading, especially as a lot of this technology is going IP-based,” Cassidy said. “However, in Shreveport we don’t have a lot of fiber connectivity in the places where we want to put cameras. It’s being put in, but just not as fast as I’d like to see it happen.”

Cassidy said that other options had been explored such as cellular phone service transmission of remote camera signals. While it works, it does have a large downside.

“We’re starting to see 4G service and I think this may hold promise in the future,” he said. “But right now, it’s cost-prohibitive due to the bandwidth requirements and the amount of time we’d be using it. In the evaluation of newer cameras, we are considering unlicensed 2.4 GHz microwave for line-of-sight applications.”