The year 2017 will go down in the record books as one of the most deadly — and expensive — years ever in terms of damage caused by natural disasters.
In one of the most active hurricane seasons ever, Harvey, Irma and Maria left a trail of wreckage in their respective wakes. Fires ripped through California, killing people and devouring more than 1.3 million acres, according to the state’s Department of Forestry. The bill in the U.S. alone is more than $300 billion, according to federal estimates.
In all this mayhem, viewers turned faithfully to one source with resources to provide visual updates and predictions: local TV weather.
Investors are paying attention, and stations are beginning to not only change the way they report the weather, but making investments in new digital strategies to deliver better weather news, faster. Just this month, comedian and entrepreneur Byron Allen acquired The Weather Channel in March for $300 million from Blackstone Group, Bain Capital and Comcast NBCUniversal, further affirming weather’s importance as a content draw across TV, digital and mobile platforms.
At a time when consumers want on-demand weather on a myriad of devices, local TV stations are doubling down on their weather investments. New technology, such as augmented reality, drones and sophisticated mobile apps, creates new ways to cover weather and deliver information. On social media, meteorologists can deliver live updates and intimate videos. It all plays to stations’ real edge in weather: market ties and beloved personalities.
“Local meteorologists have the weather knowledge,” Rodney Thompson, The Weather Co.’s VP of systems and software operations, said. “If it is sunny and nice, I can get that information many places. But when I need it broken down, I trust a hyper-local source.”
The Forecast: More Digital, Mobile and Social
As mobile devices become go-to sources for weather, local broadcasters say digital doesn’t cannibalize their audience, but rather creates new touch points. “Digital is a gift. It allows us to connect with viewers in ways traditional TV never allowed us to do,” Pete Delkus, chief meteorologist for Tegna-owned ABC affiliate WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth, said. “So many people just want short bursts of information.” Delkus hosts a weekly Facebook Live session on Friday mornings previewing weekend weather from his home, giving viewers a peek into his off-screen life.
In Portland, Ore., Meredith-owned Fox affiliate KPTV chief meteorologist Mark Nelsen pens a weather blog and hosts a weather-themed podcast. “We do these things to peel back the curtain and share the process behind the forecasting,” KPTV executive news director Corey Hansen said. “We need to give our viewers options to get weather anywhere they want it.”
Social media is a critical distribution channel, particularly during extreme weather. Univision said about 60% of its digital audience comes through social. “We go heavily with events and regular updates on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. … People are riveted by it,” digital managing editor Selymar Colon said. The stations often simply post live radar images and webcams, drawing large audiences, according to Colon.
In Los Angeles, social media even influences coverage of natural events. Before social, KNBC VP of news Todd Mokhtari said, stations typically reported earthquakes that registered a 4.0 or higher on the Richter scale. Now, he said, even small trembles prompt residents to post on social media, and KNBC will report a tremor as low as 2.5. Information may come from a news crawl or a push notification, or, for stronger shakes, live on-air. “If one person felt it, they all want to hear about it,” Mokhtari said.
During extreme conditions like tornadoes, Griffin Communications-owned CBS affiliate KWTV Oklahoma City dedicates a meteorologist to updating all social accounts. “Social allows us to have a two-way conversation with viewers and to provide them the most up-to-date weather and safety information no matter where they are,” chief meteorologist David Payne said. “We can spend an unlimited amount of time talking about the forecast and answering viewer questions in real time.”
In the last six months, CBS owned-and-operated TV stations have ramped up digital video production for both extreme weather and for more light-hearted fare, like a look inside the weather office. “These aren’t things you’d see on the broadcast side, but we can do on digital,” CBS Television Stations senior VP of news David Friend said. “It takes us beyond the realm of regular newscasts and breaks out of that straight jacket.”
Online and on mobile apps, station executives said live radar is a popular draw. “Even if we’re not on the air with news, it will give you a live sweep that includes where you work and where you live,” Ric Harris, president and GM of NBC-owned Philadelphia stations WCAU and WWSI, said.
On the TV screen, graphic innovations are improving forecasting as well. Outlets including ABC’s KABC Los Angeles, Tegna’s WFAA and Univision’s central weather operation, have introduced augmented reality graphics, which rise up from the studio floor and can simulate hard-to-visualize dangers, like flooding and tornadoes. “It is amazing new technology. It is eye candy to some degree, but also valuable info that you can’t get on your phone,” WFAA’s Delkus said.
Univision used similar imaging to depict Hurricane Harvey and Northeast snowstorms. “Our chief meteorologist can explain things not just by saying it or showing video, but also with graphics,” Colon said.
At Hearst Television, new graphics alert viewers to major upcoming weather events, like a yellow caution or a red animated image for severe weather. “We’re trying to do a better job of laying out to the audience to call their attention to things that will make them safe,” Hearst senior VP of news Barbara Maushard said.
“We could have the fanciest trucks and radar, but at the end of the day, it’s about communicating with folks at home … the technology is extremely important and you have to be able to communicate to the people at home and bring it home to the people,” WFAA’s Delkus said.
The 2017 Hurricane Season
Last year’s hurricane season tested TV stations’ ability and resolve. When Hurricane Harvey lashed Houston with heavy rain and flooding, local broadcasters struggled to stay on the air and cover the market.
ABC-owned KTRK used boats equipped with Dejero cell-sat technology to report live, show emergency conditions and assist stranded viewers. The station deployed a drone to survey conditions overhead until the station’s helicopter could resume flying, and simulcasted its TV broadcast on Facebook Live.
Also in Houston, Tegna-owned CBS affiliate KHOU leaned on its corporate cousin WFAA. After KHOU’s building flooded, knocking it off the air, WFAA stepped in as the temporary Houston affiliate and newsroom. Its ex-tended coverage was simulcast in Houston and streamed on Facebook Live.
“We became the Houston news operation,” WFAA’s Delkus said.
Weeks later, as Floridians braced for Hurricane Irma, broadcasters across that state activated disaster plans. With stations in Tampa, West Palm Beach and Orlando, Hearst Television held daily, group-wide calls to coordinate resources and coverage. Reporters from 11 different markets were sent to the state to assist.
WPBF, Hearst’s West Palm Beach ABC affiliate, launched into hurricane mode first, with more than two days of extended coverage. When the storm turned away from the Southeast coast, Hearst’s team pivoted, sending teams to Tampa and Orlando, although its crews avoided the Florida Keys.
NBC affiliate WESH Orlando’s weather team forecasted the storm would shift westward and travel up the central part of the state, which shaped its plans. “We have great tools and great people who understand markets and have watched storms for years,” Hearst’s Maushard said.
At Fox’s TV station group, new drones allow the stations to cover weather disasters sooner and from fresh perspectives. WTVT Tampa used its drone to capture lake flooding after Hurricane Irma, while WAGA Atlanta’s surveyed tornado damage. Nearly all of Fox’s markets now have drones, which have flown more than 600 missions to date and are manned by highly-trained pilots.
When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico Sept. 20 and devastated the island, Univision deployed reporters from its TV stations and digital team across 78 towns, and also connected about 100 families with their relatives on the mainland. With all three hurricanes, Univision stations leaned heavily on their digital assets, including live updates on station websites, YouTube and Facebook.
As fires burned across California, broadcasters across the state worked desperately to cover the fast-moving blazes and keep viewers informed and safe. In Los Angeles, stations used their own radars, as well as National Weather Service radar, to track smoke, fire conditions and wind patterns.
To cover the Los Angeles-area fires and their aftermath, KABC dispatched its drone to fly over Ventura neighborhoods devastated by the Thomas fire and broadcast live images. The station’s helicopter deployed its augmented reality mapping system to show before-and-after pictures, including dramatic images of the Montecito mudslide.
Advanced weather vehicles, some equipped with mobile radar, also assisted in difficult conditions. KNBC Los Angeles’ Storm Ranger sports utility vehicle, built by Accelerated Media Technologies, is equipped with radar that has a range up to 90 miles and can distinguish between smoke and smog. “You can put a radar truck someplace outside of L.A. and see a fire before anyone knows it is happening,” AMT president Tom Jennings said.
For KNBC executives, the Storm Ranger provided more coverage and security. “We need to be within 30 miles of a fire and we can pick up the smoke very accurately, and then we are not worried about truck and crew being near danger,” KNBC’s Mokhtari said. Meteorologists also traveled in a Jeep equipped with sophisticated weather tools and cameras, providing “a new tool to get meteorologists involved in fire coverage since so much of it is driven by weather,” Mokhtari added.
Similarly, in Sacramento, Hearst-owned NBC affiliate KCRA relied heavily on its weather technology to track air quality, smoke, fires and even mudslides. “The technology allows them to be engaged from a weather perspective,” Maushard said.
Sophisticated vehicles can help in smaller markets, too. In Montana, remote locations and mountains often make it difficult for stations cover fires. Accelerated Media Technologies is building a new Ford Explorer for Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned NBC affiliate KECI equipped with IP LiveU, combined with a Viasat Ka Band satellite that will allow the station to travel closer to fires and broadcast live. “The coverage wasn’t done before because the technology wasn’t available yet,” Jennings said. “Now they will be able to get high-resolution images and informations out of the mountains.”
Winter 2018 Nor’easters
Across the Northeast in March, storms blanketed the region under wet, heavy snow. After one storm, CBS O&O WCBS New York deployed its drone to survey damage in Westchester County, where downed power lines and trees “looked like Lincoln Logs,” Friend said, adding, “The drones were an incredible news gathering tool.” Anchor Chris Wragge set out in WCBS’ “Mobile2” vehicle and reported exclusively for digital outlets, a shift in strategy.
“It is an example of the importance we put on the digital portion of our coverage,” Friend said.
With varied conditions across the New York market, WCBS also relied on its user-generated content assets, including the Weather Watcher Network and Social Snow Patrol. All CBS O&Os have a select group of local weather aficionados who report conditions and share photos and video.
“That’s another way to drill down and make coverage as local and personal,” Friend explained.
In Philadelphia, NBC’s WCAU deployed its Storm Ranger vehicle to track storm conditions, one feature of its wall-to-wall storm coverage. With Storm Ranger’s mobile radar, “We were able to see different micro-climates, like where the snow was more intense and where it was beginning to taper off,” president/GM Harris said.
In Boston, no stranger to extreme winter weather, TV stations have relied on their well-crafted advanced preparations. At Hearst’s WCVB, Maushard said: “They were on with extended coverage in advance and that is more important than anything. They were aggressive early and they had people in place.”