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Forget the Five-Day—Today’s Weather Has to Be Up to the Second

Related: Local TV’s Weather Whizzes

When bad weather’s brewing near Boston, Eric Fisher, CBS O&O WBZ’s chief meteorologist, hunkers down at home long after his late-night newscast, poring over weather models so he can duly warn viewers of looming storms.

Roughly 1,400 miles south, in Tampa, Fla., Paul Dellegatto, the chief meteorologist at Fox O&O WTVT, daily feeds social media at the same furious pace as when he first started using the platforms to strike up relationships with viewers about five years ago. Even now, Dellegatto is wired seven days a week, even while on vacation, and responds to every viewer communication he receives.

Meanwhile, Belinda Jensen, chief meteorologist at KARE, Tegna’s NBC affiliate in Minneapolis, is on the job from the moment she wakes up. She analyzes radar feeds and pushes out forecasts across platforms, all with precision and consistency consumers can’t get from apps.

“I yearn for some slow days,” says Jensen, a 25-year industry vet who fondly remembers having the luxury of time in creating and delivering forecasts. “The bottom line is, people want immediate gratification with everything in the world including the weather forecast.”

Those kinds of round-the-clock days are, for the most part, now the norm for local TV meteorologists, whose jobs are infinitely more complex, and more consuming, than they were for their rip-and-read predecessors. Whereas early TV weathercasters were prized for sunny dispositions, TV stations today put a premium on hiring degreed scientists who have expertise in synthesizing complex meteorological information, as well as a knack for communicating it in a way that laypeople understand.

“Our jobs have evolved considerably because of all the things we are expected to do to keep the public informed,” says John Morales, chief meteorologist at NBC O&O WTVJ Miami. “That’s just the nature of the beast these days.”

That evolution, which has sped up considerably over the last decade, has been driven by a range of factors affecting the local broadcast industry and beyond.

On one hand, TV meteorologists are having to expand the breadth of their work in response to larger challenges facing all of local TV, ranging from stiff digital competition to a 24-hour news cycle.

But the urgency of doing their jobs with precision, which includes keeping people safe, has also become more acute. Weathercasters say that climate change has raised the stakes, as severe weather is more common than it used to be.

Jerry Taft, chief meteorologist at ABC O&O WLS Chicago, says over the last seven years the number of tornados that hit the market has risen from one every couple of years to as many as three annually.

In addition, a rising number of people are moving to places prone to severe weather, compounding the problem, local broadcasters say. Places like Houston, which floods; South Florida, which gets lightning strikes and hurricanes; and the middle part of the country known as Tornado Alley are seeing spikes in populations, they say.

“There are more people in harm’s way,” Morales says.

In turn, TV meteorologists have long been ahead of the curve leveraging platforms like social media, and today remain among cyberspace’s most engaged, innovative TV personalities. Having plunged into digital media at an early stage, weathercasters today oversee a range of off-air initiatives, most of which they created and sustain themselves.

Many of their elaborate ventures are built on offering real-time, interactive weather coverage that can’t always be done on linear TV. They include, for example, the video call-in show that Denis Phillips, the chief meteorologist at Scripps’ ABC affiliate WFTS in Tampa, streams online; covering a lightning storm for 188,000 people using Facebook Live, which Dellegatto did in July; and building vibrant online communities by maximizing social media. Mark Johnson, chief meteorologist at WEWS, Scripps’ ABC affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio has 140,000 followers.

“I’m not sure how it’s going to evolve in a year or two but, for now, this instant interaction is certainly going to be a big part of what we do,” Dellegatto says. “This is the kind of stuff that plays a big role in how we reach consumers and customers.”

It also helps that, as scientists who rely on things like radar feeds and computer models, meteorologists tend to be tech-savvy, so much so that they already have figured out what does and doesn’t work in reaching viewers.

Several years ago, for instance, weathercasters were already begging off Facebook, long the darling of local broadcasters. They realized that legions of followers weren’t getting critical weather warnings because they platform’s algorithms filtered such posts out of their news feeds.

“Facebook is still a huge venue but you can’t get people on it to see something right away,” Fisher says.

TV stations are also taking weather up a notch by giving it greater play in newscasts as well as investing in next-gen technology.

After decades of relying on data from the National Weather Service, WLS earlier this year became the first in the market to have its own Doppler 7 Max. The state-of-the-art radar system, like its predecessors, is able to detect storms. But it is also able to detect the storms behind the storms.

The latest radar also has the power to offer particulars like, say, the difference between small and large raindrops, and whether the debris caught up in a storm is indicative of a tornado or heavy rain.

Taft, a former Air Force pilot with radar expertise, says that during most of his 32 years at the station he didn’t see any reason to have station radar. That requires a seven-figure investment in the equipment, land to put it on, and government approvals. “For years and years I was on the other side of the fence,” he says. “I didn’t see reason to take the big bite.”

Now that the market is experiencing more severe weather, however, National Weather Service data feeds no longer cut it, Taft says. NWS information is already four to six minutes old by the time WLS receives it, not an acceptable lag in dangerous conditions.

“If you are putting data on the air that’s four minutes old, a storm moving 60 miles per hour would be four miles away from what you showed viewers on screen,” Taft says. “If you are showing the whole area, that’s good enough. But the more you are zooming in, the more you show how wrong you could be. … You just want to know where the hell it is.”

The CBS O&Os also continue to upgrade their weather equipment.

Flagship WCBS in New York this summer will debut an updated version of the mobile weather vans used by stations across the group.

The imposing vehicle—an industrial-size Chevy Suburban decked out with flashing lights and graphics— is tricked out for weathercasters to report from the road even under the toughest conditions. It has five mounted cameras, a full array of weather sensors, and can transmit signals using satellite or cellular bonded equipment.

After a snowstorm several years ago, WCBS broadcast from an earlier version of the van while out driving with Brooklyn’s borough president, airing pictures of streets that had yet to be plowed.

Peter Dunn, CBS Television Stations president, says investing in that kind of equipment is a reflection of local TV’s commitment to covering weather—as well as the medium’s dominance in doing so.

“No one has local down to the neighborhoods like we do. And we save lives,” Dunn says. “We look at it as a responsibility.”

Affiliates are making the most of such investments by playing up weather more so than in the past. Morales, for instance, says he breaks into regular programming far more than he used to, as well as simultaneously working the Web and social media to warn viewers of severe weather.

Last winter, during which South Florida saw a spike in tornadoes due to El Niño patterns, WTVJ started issuing weather alerts even before storms neared the area.

“We have paradigms set up in better ways to make people aware that the weather might be dangerous that day,” Morales says.

Certainly, weathercasters have a vested interest in hitting these marks, especially keeping the public safe. As one of the reasons viewers tune in to their local station, meteorologists are among local TV’s most visible (and highly paid) personalities. There are perks that come with still being the go-to source for local weather.

But they are no longer sacrosanct, either, no matter how aggressively they engage with their communities.

The plethora of weather apps, and consumers’ propensity for checking forecasts up to eight times a day, puts broadcasters at serious risk of being eclipsed by computers.

“Our next battle is going to be showing the value of a human forecast and what we can add,” Fisher says. “If we can’t make the case for that, we’ll all be in trouble.”

Yet even TV’s most proficient weathercasters are constricted by certain human factors, such as the periodic need for sleep.

“The science is so much better than when I started but there is still a limit to what we can do,” Jensen says. “So when our bosses, and our bosses’ bosses, and the viewers keep demanding more and more, it can be very challenging for a scientist working in a newsroom.”

She adds, “There is no way to not always be in a rush.”

Regardless, weathercasters say that are relatively optimistic about their profession’s future.

“We bank on when the day is done, consumers will come to a meteorologist, a website, a TV station they have watched for 25 years to get confirmation of what they have been looking at all day,” Jensen says.

WLS’ Taft also has hope, saying he believes the human touch TV meteorologists bring to forecasting will prevail in keeping viewers warm, dry and safe from the forces of Mother Nature.

“My non-alarmist style has always been no hype, giving viewers just the facts and keeping people calm through the threat,” he says.

“There’s no need to panic,” he says. But we do need to be prepared and be ready with the aim of saving lives.”