NBC Eyes Two Digital Nets, Including Weather


New York — NBC Cable is aiming to launch two digital
networks — with one of them likely to be a weather channel with strong local
elements, and possibly even traffic reports — officials said last week.

Doing a digital weather channel would be a natural for NBC,
the parent of CNBC and MSNBC, and it would be relatively inexpensive to create, said David
Zaslav, president of NBC Cable Distribution.

The digital network could eventually take advantage of both
NBC's TV-station affiliates and possibly its national network personalities, such as
Today's Al Roker, Zaslav added.

NBC would be the latest addition to the herd of programmers
creating digital cable networks. A&E Networks last week launched the digital 24-hour
services The Biography Channel and History Channel International.

NBC Cable's possible plans for a digital-cable weather
network would put it in head-to-head competition against The Weather Channel. TWC's strong
brand and 71 million homes make it a formidable rival.

TWC already has its own digital weather service,
Weatherscan by The Weather Channel, on Tele-Communications  Inc.'s Headend in the Sky
digital platform, and it is creating several local-weather services. In fact, TWC has a
task force developing local products for digital platforms and set-tops.

“Anybody who launches a competing service to us is a
threat,” TWC CEO Michael Eckert said. “But competition makes us better, and it
is a motivator.”

But NBC argued that it has its own edge.

“We're in the news-and-information business,”
Zaslav said. “We have all of those resources at hand. This is a way to piggyback on
them. We plan to bring NBC personalities and the NBC brand to it. We have local talent
across the country at each of our affiliates, and they could be contributors.”

The idea under “serious discussion” for NBC's
first service is a local on-demand weather channel, Zaslav said.

“We plan to launch a digital service in the next few
months. And the operator interest in this is a '9,'” he said.

NBC would also seek analog carriage, he added.

He declined to discuss the second digital network. But
Zaslav did say that NBC Cable's digital networks would not have anything to do with the
slice of the digital-television spectrum that its parent, NBC, has as a broadcaster. NBC
Cable's proposed digital networks would be designed for carriage on cable's digital tiers,
or on analog cable.

In 1997, NBC successfully launched 10 regional-weather
channels — under the moniker, MSNBC Weather by Intellicast — on PrimeStar Inc.'s
digital-music channels. That service for direct-broadcast satellite is a partnership
between NBC and weather-data provider Weather Services International Corp.

At the time of the Prime-Star launch, NBC said it planned
to market the Weather by Intellicast services to cable operators. But Zaslav said that
when he began discussions with MSOs, including some of PrimeStar's owners, the feedback
was that they wanted localized weather services, and not a regional one.

“They felt that it needed to be local to be more
useful, and they would like some co-branding with NBC,” Zaslav said. “So we've
been working on getting it more local. With local breaks, it's an attractive

So NBC and WSI are going their separate ways. WSI, under
the Weather by Intellicast name, is currently pitching its 24-hour customized
local-weather network to operators. The company is already working with two MSOs to roll
it out in two markets, according to WSI president Peter Ryus.

And there are other players already offering 24-hour custom
localized-weather channels for cable, including State College, Pa.-based AccuWeather Inc.

TWC is already testing, in a number of markets, two
versions of a 24-hour custom local-weather network, Eckert said. And TWC's internal task
force is also guiding its plans to develop local products for digital platforms, including
interactive ones.

The next-generation “Weather Star” boxes that TWC
will roll out next year will provide the technology to make some of these applications
easily doable, according to Eckert.

TWC's digital “Weatherscan,” which is already up,
offers national weather reports, as well as seven regional weather reports.

“NBC has said that it is positioning itself as a
weather provider to digital platforms,” Eckert said. “We are beyond 'strongly
considering.' We will be doing this because weather is our business.”

While TWC is a strong competitor, Zaslav said, NBC has some
key advantages if it does go ahead with a localized digital-weather channel. For one, NBC
could cross-promote its digital spinoff on CNBC and MSNBC.

“We have a big advantage in the marketplace: extensive
experience, a strong brand and significant resources,” Zaslav said. “And we have
a strong relationship with operators in the news-and-information genre.”

NBC's digital-weather network would incorporate a lot of
graphics, such as weather maps and Doppler radar, and it would use the NBC brand,
expanding over time, Zaslav said.

“Over time, we want to piggyback on the infrastructure
of our NBC affiliates,” Zaslav said, adding that there could also be national cut-ins
for talent such as Roker.

“All of our research says that people are interested
in weather on-demand,” Zaslav said.

That's why MSNBC, in a test, has been airing an onscreen
local-weather graphic “bug,” which includes the current temperature and
forecasts, on Time Warner Cable's New York City systems.

That local-weather graphic — using AccuWeather data
and carried on MSNBC's vertical-blanking interval — is likely to be added to the
all-news network in other systems across the country.

MSNBC is trying to stop viewers from tuning out to go to
other TV sources for local weather, Zaslav said.

In terms of other programmers and digital, A&E
Television Networks' two digital services went up on HITS and on their own transponder
last week. A&E is talking to operators about carriage for the two digital spinoffs,
which are also being offered for analog, according to Nickolas Davatzes, CEO of A&E

Davatzes said about 20 percent of The Biography Channel's
programming will be original, with the rest culled from the more than 700 Biography
episodes that A&E Network has in its library. The Biography Channel will program
thematic primetime blocks, such as “great women” and “lives of crime.”

History Channel International will look at history through
the eyes of the world, and not America, according to A&E. Focus groups showed that
consumers — especially upscale, educated men — were interested in getting that
international perspective, Davatzes said.

Because A&E already has an infrastructure in place, its
digital services can hit profitability at that level of distribution — 20 million to
25 million homes — Davatzes added.