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Local Weather Net Lands AT&T, Cox

Building up to a projected 4 million subscribers this year, The Weather Channel's digital spin-off Weatherscan Local has closed carriage deals with AT&T Broadband and Cox Communications Inc., officials said last week.

Those new affiliation agreements are in addition to the distribution boost Weatherscan Local received starting last August, when Comcast Corp. carried out a major digital launch of the local lifestyle-and-weather information channel. The MSO is providing Weatherscan Local, which offers customized local weather on a 24-hour basis, to more than 900,000 households as part of its Comcast Digital Plus service.

Last week, TWC also promoted Pam Bertino to the newly created post of vice president and general manager of Weatherscan Local. Most recently, she had been regional vice president of affiliate sales for TWC's Western division.

"We now have a real business here with real revenue and real customers," TWC president and CEO Decker Anstrom said. "We need one person accountable for it. This is a complicated task."

TWC isn't the only vendor providing a customizable local weather channel. AccuWeather Inc. recently teamed up with WFMZ-TV in Allentown, Pa., to create a local weather channel that is being carried by Service Electric Cable TV and RCN Corp. to 200,000 homes, according to AccuWeather senior vice president Mike Steinberg. WFMZ is using its digital bandwidth to multicast the digital 24-hour weather channel, which is being carried via fiber optic to the cable systems.

AccuWeather maintains that its local-weather offering, AccuWeather Channel, is more customizable than Weatherscan Local, and that it even has a local weather anchor, the meteorologist from WFMZ.

"Our channel is not just graphics and text," Steinberg said.

Anstrom said he was aware of what AccuWeather was doing, but maintained that TWC is the No. 1 brand in this arena.

"With these major new contracts, we are the clear leader," he said.

At the end of last year, Weatherscan Local had 2.6 million subscribers, Anstrom said. By the end of this year, he projected the digital service will have 4 million homes and from 5.5 million to 6 million in 2002.

AT&T has launched Weatherscan Local so far in markets such as St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Atlanta and its recently acquired system in Boston. The cable operator also plans to roll out the service in Denver, according to Anstrom.

"We do not have specific launch commitments [from AT&T and Cox], but we've had a good response, particularly in markets that are weather sensitive," he said. "We have a product that was specifically designed to fit in a digital package, one that is very local and will complement The Weather Channel."

Comcast has found from its in-market trial research that Weatherscan Local is the most frequently viewed channel on its Digital Plus offering, according to MSO vice president of marketing Andy Addis.

Referring to Comcast's finding, Anstrom said Weatherscan Local is now a cornerstone of Comcast's digital package. AT&T also is hoping for similar success with the local weather service.

"As new platforms roll out in the future, we are confident that The Weather Channel will continue to be the leading provider of value-added weather content and information for AT&T customers," Matt Bond, AT&T's executive vice president of programming, said in a prepared statement. "We know that our customers find local weather information valuable."

Cox has added the local weather service to its lineup at systems in Las Vegas; San Diego; Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Okla.; Orange County, Calif.; and Fairfax County, Va. It is about to roll out Weatherscan Local in Providence, R.I., and Cleveland, Ohio.

Anstrom said there is a "very low" license fee for Weatherscan Local, but he declined to say what it is.

He is talking to Charter Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable about closing corporate carriage deals for Weatherscan Local. But Charter's system in Fort Worth, Texas, and Time Warner's Memphis system already have launched the local digital weather service.

In addition to a community's local weather, Weatherscan Local offers customized weather-related information on golf courses, and ski and beach conditions.

"This is our first-generation product," Anstrom said. "We will continue to reinvent it."

TWC plans to start running national advertising on Weatherscan Local in the first quarter next year, after tests in the third and fourth quarter this year, Anstrom said.

"If we sell an Allstate ad on TWC, we would run that same ad on Weatherscan Local," he said.