“Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while.”
Weather affects revenue for many businesses and perhaps none as much as local television stations. The business of broadcasting local TV weather is a complex mix of finance, technology, information distribution and public protection.
Weather forecasting technology in many cases is the biggest line item in a station’s budget, with advanced radar system prices reaching seven figures.
And while $1 million is a big check to write for a local business, Kentucky television executives say they get a positive return on their investment, both on the bottom line and in more esoteric ways.
Local news is the big moneymaker for stations, and weather has long been the star of local newscasts – driving viewers to a particular station and a favorite weatherperson, increasing ratings and thus advertising revenue.
“Generally speaking, as a stand-alone daypart, local news is the revenue leader, no question,” said Chris Aldridge, general manger at Lexington’s WTVQ 36.
“Weather is the single most important element in a newscast, because it impacts every single person,” said Wayne Martin, general manager of Lexington’s WKYT Channel 27. “There may be breaking or important news in another segment, but it may not be important to everyone. Weather is.”
“Weather is the No. 1 driver and has the highest percentage of viewers in a broadcast, according to every study we’ve been a part of,” said Lee Eldridge, news director at Louisville’s WAVE3. “That’s why people watch local news. The weather segment is very much a high priority here. We pay a lot of attention to it and how we position it in the newscast.”
But station managers balance their financial considerations with a resolve to safeguard the public, too. Meteorologists and managers all agree that having the tools to inform viewers in a weather emergency is paramount in their choice of systems.
“Channel 27 has always been about serving our communities, but it’s also a business that has to support itself through advertising, sponsorships and partnerships,” Martin said.
Many Kentucky stations leverage their market share to land substantial sponsorships or partnerships that help offset the cost of buying bigger, better weather radar systems that help them scope out even more viewers.
The latest example is WKYT, which unveiled the newest generation, dual-polarity Doppler radar in September. The million-watt radar, which reads both horizontal and vertical information, is the only one of its kind in the region and one of a handful in the country.
It was the second-largest investment in the station’s 50-year history, Martin said. The decision to purchase the system, at a cost of well over $1 million – the station won’t say exactly how much – was made very carefully, he said.
“Even without the significant capital investment we just made, no other segment of news requires a greater investment in equipment and presentation.”
Weather radars range from $300,000 to $350,000 on the low end to “well in excess of $1 million” for the highest-end dual-polarity systems such as WKYT has, according to Chris Good, vice president of sales and marketing for Enterprise Electronics Corp., the Mobile, Ala.-based maker of the system Channel 27 now uses.
EEC, a sister company of The Weather Channel under the umbrella of GE-owned NBC Universal, makes 30 to 40 weather radar systems a year, Good said. About 85 percent of that business is international. The company is now deploying the same dual-polarity Doppler system WKYT has for the German federal government, he said, and recently installed a similar one at National Weather Service headquarters in Norman, Okla., where it shares space with the University of Oklahoma meteorology program.
Good, a Lexington native, sold WKYT its system.
A marketing tool, too
To help pay for its top-of-the-line system, WKYT approached Touchstone Energy Cooperatives as a partner. They struck a four-year deal.
“From start to finish, it was a two-year project,” Martin said. “We presented the project to every one of the member cooperatives. It’s a very good match. Their service areas, our viewing area and the reach of the Doppler tie in very well.”
Nick Comer, public affairs manager for East Kentucky Power Cooperative, one of the 17 Touchstone co-ops, agrees.
“It’s a major campaign with high visibility, and weather is relative to our co-ops’ ability to deliver power,” Comer said. “We’re using this opportunity to talk about energy efficiency, and through the sponsorship, we have the ability to get that info out. We also use it for tactical information – to see where we need to concentrate our resources in a weather situation.”
WBKO Channel 13 in Bowling Green also has a radar sponsorship.
“In 1998 we had a real bad storm, and we collaborated with the local hospital, The Medical Center, in getting our own live Doppler,” said General Manager Rick McCue. “We’re in the second five-year sponsorship with them now. It’s a very good tool, both for the station and for the safety of our citizens. It allows us to be very accurate. Weather is key (to driving viewership). In all the surveys, weather is right at the top of every one.”
While Paducah’s WPSD Channel 6 uses the National Weather Service’s Nexrad radar rather than a system it owns, it still has weather-related sponsorships.
“We have three cameras around the market,” said Bill Evans, WPSD vice president for news and operations. “It’s a revenue source that doesn’t take up shelf space. When we show a shot from a location, the weatherman introduces the sponsor and they have a banner. We also have sponsorships in place for the three camera locations.”
In Lexington, WLEX Channel 18 invested in its own live Doppler radar in 2003.
“The cost of the Doppler, related equipment and construction was near $1 million,” said News Director Bruce Carter. “We spend about $30,000 a year on it now in data service fees and the like. The No. 1 driver to news is weather. It’s the No. 1 driver of traffic to our Web site as well. But it’s really not about a competitive advantage or disadvantage. I think [Doppler] is something stations need to have to save lives.
“A prime example is the Masterson Station tornado (in east Lexington in May 2004). The NWS radar didn’t see it, and they didn’t issue a warning until 11 minutes after it touched down,” Carter said. “Our live Doppler did see it, and (WLEX meteorologist) Bill (Meck) went on the air immediately to tell people to take cover.”
In Louisville, WLKY Channel 32’s President and GM Glenn Haygood says the weather segment consistently pulls in its highest ratings. His station bought a live Doppler system in 1996 and upgrades it regularly.
“It can be eclipsed by a big news story, but day in and day out, weather is at the top. We typically get good (advertising) rates for our news programming, but we have good numbers, so the two go hand in hand.
“Our weather capabilities have been a primary promotional focus, and likely will be until the end of time,” he said. “We promote it on-air, on our Web site, on mobile devices, and we make use of our NewsChopper. That’s especially true in the aftermath of severe weather, when it’s an extremely good way to get news out of areas that you might not be able to reach on the ground.”
At Louisville’s WHAS Channel 11, which bought its live Doppler a decade ago, President and GM Mark Pimentel said a recent investment his Louisville station has made “is installing cameras in locations that give us a combination of coverage of weather and traffic.”
Pimentel said pinning down the station’s exact investment in weather forecasting equipment is difficult, because “most of the capital investment is already in place. In terms of operations, we have significant investment in data and software. We spend well over $100,000 a year to gain access to the data we need.”
Named for Austrian physicist Christian Doppler, who in 1842 first described the wave effect created by objects in motion, Doppler radar detects not just weather phenomenon but their movement. An alternative to buying a Doppler system is to subscribe to Nexrad’s regional radar service and data, a network of 159 Doppler radars operated by the National Weather Service. Lexington’s WTVQ Channel 36 took that route, utilizing VIPIR radar and taking NWS feeds from Louisville and Jackson.
“We still have radar on the property, but it’s not active,” said Aldridge, the general manager. “We prefer Nexrad – we’re getting two different sweeps, which covers a bigger area. (Morris Multimedia) bought this station in May 2008, and we were considering upgrading and reactivating our radar. Brad James (longtime Lexington meteorologist, who retired in July) looked at both options, and he felt the info we get from the NWS is more valuable to our viewership.”
“Being a weatherman, I’d love to have my own radar, but I don’t think it would do any better for us than VIPIR,” said WTVQ Chief Meteorologist Jon James. “VIPIR has plenty of power, and it’s sending from multiple locations. The NWS is updating all its locations to dual polarity over the next couple of years, and they will be getting new radar very similar to Channel 27’s,” he said.
WAVE in Louisville also subscribes to Nexrad, utilizing five sweeps – Indianapolis, St. Louis, Nashville and Paducah in addition to its hometown – while WPSD takes Nexrad data from its home city of Paducah as well as Memphis, St. Louis and Springfield, Mo.
“It doesn’t make sense for us to own a radar, since we have (an NWS) one right here,” said WPSD’s Evans. “To me, the most important tool is access to the right data, and having meteorologists who can interpret it, then present it in an easy-to-understand manner to keep families safe and safeguard property.”
Most stations have extensive outreach and educational programs as well as contests, blogs and more to connect with viewers. WLEX Chief Meteorologist Bill Meck sounds as if he takes promotion of his product as seriously as he does his forecast.
His school visit program, Bill’s Weather 101, in its 11th year, has been attended by 60,000 Kentucky school kids. He says he not only enjoys educating and interacting with the students, but the trips expose his station to a potential new audience.
“When we do a school visit, you’ll have 100, 150 or more parents and grandparents tuning into us that night to see their kids on TV,” said Meck. “That night, those parents are tuning into us, maybe for the first time. I’ve always felt that once somebody watches us, we’ll keep them. This station has really grown and is weather a part of that? Absolutely – we’ve built a brand.”
WTVQ’s Jon James has the 3-Degree Guarantee, making a prediction for the day’s high. If he’s within 3 degrees, sponsor Denger’s Hearth & Home makes a contribution to the United Way of the Bluegrass. James keeps track of his batting average on a spreadsheet, and since 2005, he has a 90.08 percent accuracy rate.
“It makes every forecast count,” he said. “We wanted to demonstrate our accuracy, and then we found a way to tie in charities.”
WKYT’s Chief Meteorologist T.G. Shuck said he often marvels how far weather technology has come.
“It’s kind of like looking back to when there were just the networks on television; now we have hundreds of channels,” he said. “It’s the same with weather. You look back at the tools we used to have and wonder how we were able to it.”
The WKYT meteorologists also present the weather for the Lexington Fox affiliate, WDKY Channel 56, on that station’s 10 p.m. newscast. And they simulcast to WKYT’s sister station WYMT Channel 12 in Hazard.
“We simulcast the entire news broadcast, including weather, to Hazard at noon, 5 and 5:30 p.m., as well as weekends,” Shuck said. “We also do the entire hour for Fox at 10 p.m. (News anchor) Marvin Bartlett is the only Fox employee – the rest are all from our station.”
Shuck and the station are heavily promoting the new dual-polarity radar in all their markets. “One reason is that it’s pretty cutting-edge stuff,” he said. “I can physically manipulate it, and the dual polarity can show things you could never see before. That works to the public’s advantage.
“People are fascinated and intrigued with the weather,” he said. “It’s the challenge of predictability and the unpredictable.”
While much of the focus on weather is all business, there’s another factor.
Meteorologists thoroughly relish their jobs, enjoying interacting with their viewers, and love having access to new and better technology. EEC’s Good said only about 10 of the dual-polarmetric systems exist currently.
“It’s been pretty exciting these last few months,” said Shuck. “It’s fun.”
His general manager agrees. “I don’t know how to describe how excited T.G. was when we acquired the new system,” said Martin. “To say he was just excited is quite the understatement.”