Weather Is Turbulent on Cable Front

Author:
Publish date:

In what could prove to be a stormy battle, a battalion of
veteran programmers and upstart companies is taking aim at The Weather Channel by offering
cable operators localized 24-hour weather services.

With the mantra for MSOs today being "local, local,
local," some would-be TWC rivals claimed that they can serve that need on the weather
front, and a number of companies are looking for a piece of that pie.

TWC — a behemoth with 71 million subscribers —
said it will hold its own and then some with its strong brand and its new local-weather
offerings. The network maintained that its ratings won't erode when its new rivals launch
because its core viewers aren't necessarily interested in local weather.

Cable operators actually seemed divided on whether they
wanted local-weather networks. Some said local-weather services give them a nice advantage
over direct-broadcast satellite, while others felt that they are redundant — with
both TWC and local broadcast — and that it wasn't worth giving them valuable
bandwidth.

The would-be local-weather players on the scene today are:

• As previously reported, NBC, which had partnered
with Weather Services International Corp. to create an array of 10 regional-weather
channels for DBS service PrimeStar Inc. NBC is seriously considering launching its own
digital-weather network for cable operators — one with a strong local element.

• WSI, which will test and plans to roll out its own
local-weather network, Weather by Intellicast: Local Weather for Cable, a 24-hour video
service that can be customized for individual cable systems.

• AccuWeather Inc. of State College, Pa., which
expects its 24-hour Local Cable Weather service to be in more than 3 million cable homes
by year's end, with affiliates such as MediaOne, Comcast Corp., Tele-Communications Inc.
and BellSouth Corp.

• LIN Television Corp., which — in an effort that
it started as part of retransmission consent — has created 24-hour local-weather
channels for cable systems in a half-dozen markets where it owns TV stations. And LIN has
its eyes on expansion, talking to TCI in Grand Rapids, Mich., and to Adelphia
Communications Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., about rolling out local-weather channels in those
markets.

• Cablevision Systems Corp., which launched MSG Metro
Traffic & Weather this year in the New York metropolitan area — a 24-hour local
channel with five different feeds to serve New York City, Long Island and Westchester
County, N.Y., as well as New Jersey and Connecticut.

WEATHER CHANNEL REMAINS CALM

Despite the onslaught of rivals, TWC maintained that it
will weather the competition. TWC officials said that by early next year — when the
network's new "Weather Star" equipment is deployed — they will be able to
aggressively go forward with a full battery of state-of-the-art, local-weather options for
cable operators.

TWC will market the services under the banner, "Local
Weather by The Weather Channel," in addition to offering local customization of its
national network. Those offerings include local-weather inserts and 24-hour local-weather
channels for both analog and digital carriage, among other products.

TWC already has a digital channel that provides national
and regional weather, Weatherscan by The Weather Channel, which is carried on TCI's
Headend in the Sky digital platform.

"We're positioned to be a full-service provider of
weather, a one-stop source," TWC CEO Michael Eckert said. "We've stuck to our
niche of weather, and we welcome the competition, because it makes us better."

The new Weather Star technology will enhance and amplify
the local-weather information that TWC can air itself and use for other kinds of products.
And as part of what Eckert likes to call TWC's "flexible bouquet of local-weather
products," two different versions of 24-hour weather channels are currently being
tested.

One includes graphics such as maps, radar and satellite
photos, and it is being tested by 16 systems with 425,000 subscribers, Eckert said. The
second, which airs still images from TWC's World Wide Web site, is being tested in two
Atlanta systems with 45,000 subscribers, Eckert added.

RIVALS' LOCAL PITCH

On the local front, TWC's competition will soon include
WSI's Intellicast. WSI president Peter Ryus described Intellicast as a headend-delivered
weather-forecast service that can be customized with optional traffic reports, as well as
with regional- and local-forecast windows. Ryus said two MSOs will roll out the service at
a pair of systems, but he declined to name them.

"We can customize a weather program for any headend in
the United States," Ryus said.

"We don't think that The Weather Channel serves the
local market as effectively as we can. We give them a very local product when operators
are trying to get increasingly local."

Intellicast's program wheel includes maps with national,
regional and local weather. The current temperature is always on-screen, and the service
will be ad-supported. WSI said it will allocate operators twice the number of local avails
that they're used to — generally two minutes per hour.

"We're not positioning it as a replacement for The
Weather Channel," Ryus said.

"But some operators have said to us, 'How many weather
channels do I need?'"

He noted that WSI, based in Billerica, Mass., provides raw
weather data to TWC, so he certainly doesn't wish ill to his own client.

Adding that Intellicast's rate card for its local-weather
channel is flexible, Ryus said it ranges from eight cents to 10 cents per subscriber, per
month.

NBC PLOTS ITS OWN COURSE

WSI supplies the data for NBC's 10 regional-weather
channels that are currently on PrimeStar — a product that NBC was talking about
offering to cable operators two years ago. But NBC and WSI are going their own ways with
local-weather networks.

David Zaslav, president of NBC Cable Distribution, said NBC
is in serious talks to launch a digital-weather network of its own with a strong local
element, and possibly even traffic reports. The service could evolve beyond an on-demand
weather service, Zaslav said.

The idea is to eventually make use of the talent and
resources of NBC's TV-station affiliates, perhaps using their local meteorologists, as
well as tapping national-network personalities such as Today's Al Roker, according
to Zaslav.

The local-weather network would also have the NBC brand,
and it could be co-branded with the name of the local cable system.

AccuWeather — which, like WSI, provides weather data
to a large number of clients — unveiled its 24-hour Local Cable Weather service more
than a year ago. The service landed a big customer this past spring, when MediaOne decided
to carry it in Atlanta, reaching 500,000 homes.

AccuWeather president Joel Myers said his service provides
local weather and radar every two minutes, and it is "totally customized" to fit
the needs of individual cable systems.

Myers claimed that this is totally contrary to TWC, where
"you have to take what they give you." The price for AccuWeather ranges from
$600 to several thousand dollars per month, depending on what a system asks for, Myers
said.

REAL ESTATE PROBLEM

LIN has deals to provide its local-weather channel to cable
operators in markets such as Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Ind., and Decatur, Ill.,
according to Paul Karpowicz, vice president of television for LIN.

And additional deals are cooking, including the potential
one with TCI in Grand Rapids. LIN's local-weather channels currently reach 3.7 million
cable homes, he said.

The channels use on-air meteorologists from the
broadcaster's local-TV stations, which, Karpowicz maintained, is a big advantage over the
local-weather competitors that he now faces.

"Our service is ultralocal, and it's presented by
people who you are familiar with," he said. "We're happy to compete with other
services."

Tim Tidd, general manager of TCI's system in Grand Rapids,
said he is still weighing whether to carry LIN's local-weather channel, which now airs on
a low-power TV station in the market. Taking LIN's channel would increase the
130,000-subscriber system's share of local content, he said.

"But The Weather Channel does a good job," Tidd
added, "and channel real estate is at a premium. It's a big decision."

SOME OPS SKEPTICAL

That's the same issue that operators such as Charter
Communications Inc. are grappling with in terms of local-weather channels.

"Certainly, cable has strength in being local,"
said Patty McCaskill, Charter's vice president of programming. "But The Weather
Channel has some local elements, and they plan to evolve that with the new Weather
Star."

She questioned if a local-weather channel deserves to have
6 megahertz of bandwidth dedicated to it, or if it would really be more valuable as a
digital channel.

Lynne Buening, Falcon Cable TV Corp.'s vice president of
programming, voiced even stronger doubts about local-weather channels.

"They're just not necessary," she said.
"It's a luxury to have multiple weather channels. I'm not sure that we need it."

Buening pointed out that major weather events, such as big
storms, get extensive coverage on local-TV stations — another factor that negates the
need for local-cable-weather channels.

Other MSOs were bullish on the concept. Cablevision's
Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. launched a package of three regional channels, including MSG
Metro Traffic & Weather, in the New York tristate area this year to 2.5 million
subscribers.

"This is a utility channel," said Norm Fein,
Rainbow's senior vice president of new development. "In effect, you are giving the
audience weather-on-demand. You don't have to go to your national weather channel. And
this is proprietary regional programming that's exclusive to cable systems."

Metro Traffic & Weather's cycle is such that it airs
two minutes of traffic, followed by two minutes of local weather, around the clock.

Early subscriber reaction to Metro Traffic & Weather,
which uses data from WSI, has been enthusiastic, according to Fein. In research done only
a few weeks after Cablevision rolled out the three new MSG channels, 60 percent said they
had watched the service, Fein said. Of those, 87 percent said they would continue to watch
it, and 80 percent said it was useful.

Outside of the New York metro area, several Cablevision
systems are carrying a customized local service, SmarTraveler TV, which offers traffic,
transit and weather information.

According to at least one MSO programming official, TWC has
been behind the curve in providing local-weather options for cable systems.

WHAT, US WORRY?

Eckert insisted that TWC won't ignore its rivals, and that
it will deliver on providing its own local-weather services. But he thinks that the
local-weather market is a tricky one.

First of all, he argued that despite the hoopla that his
rivals, such as AccuWeather and NBC, made more than one year ago about tackling the
local-weather market, not much has happened since.

"NBC continues to make noise and to try to make
inroads, " Eckert said. "But it's been much more noise than substance.
Nonetheless, it is a form of competition. In terms of our distribution, it hasn't hurt
us."

He also warned that TWC's extensive consumer research shows
that you can't build a programming service on local-weather viewers, because they aren't
brand-loyal. So TWC's position is that local-weather channels won't erode its ratings.

"Local-weather channels have a place," he said,
"but they serve a commodity weather consumer. They get their information wherever
they can. They're not brand-loyal. They do not seek out local-weather channels."

As a result, Eckert said, "We could not make a
business of local programming. The target of those channels is a nonloyal customer."

Viewers turn to TWC for a variety of reasons beyond local
weather, according to Eckert. Business travelers, weekend athletes, farmworkers and
gamblers are loyal TWC viewers, he said.

"There are consumers who watch The Weather Channel in
three- and four-hour sittings," Eckert said. "They're interested in it for
substance and science. Others will watch it for one-hour clips. We live in a transient
society, and they watch to see what the weather is like in cities where they have friends
and relatives. We call them trackers, and their usage has nothing to do with the local
weather." MCN

Related