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NBC, Affils Forecast DTV Weather Channel

NBC and its affiliates are developing a mostly local weather service that would be offered as part of a multicast package on their DTV channels.

"I don't think there is a TV station in the affiliate body that would say there is anything more strategic than weather," says Hearst-Argyle Television Executive Vice President Terry Mackin, who chairs the joint futures committee of NBC and its affiliates.

The weather service, which would also include news updates, is one of two projects that the futures committee has zeroed in on after several months of talks. The other, already a firm go, is a national/local Web site featuring Olympics coverage through 2012 (see page 38).

Last week, the affiliate board sent details of the weather service to all affiliate general managers and station-group heads, soliciting feedback. Replies are due today. Network and board members hope to crunch the results and have a go/no-go decision on the digital service fairly soon.

NBC Chairman Bob Wright mentioned a digital weather/ news service in discussing strategy with investors after the announcement of the NBC-Vivendi Universal Entertainment merger last month. He said the NBC digital multicast might also include HDTV, a movie channel and a "sneak peak" channel promoting Universal movies and NBC TV shows.

The Olympic Web site is being funded by the network as part of a recent agreement to extend the network-affiliate "Inventory Management Plan" through the 2012 Olympic games.

According to Roger Ogden, chairman of the NBC affiliate board and president and general manager of Gannett's KUSA-TV Denver, the weather service could be up and running by the middle of next year. It would be jointly owned by the affiliates and the network, he says.

The service would be "locally driven," Mackin says. But it would also receive national inserts from the NBC News Channel, the Charlotte, N.C.-based news-feed service that is jointly owned by the network and affiliates.

The service's format would be almost the reverse of cable's The Weather Channel, which has a national focus with opportunity for local inserts. Unlike TWC, the NBC service would also feature news and safety alerts.

Weather Channel President Bill Burke says bring it on: "We're confident we have a very strong product. We beat competition all the time, and we compete with [NBC stations] already. We have WeatherScan as a digital all-local product that is in 7 million households and doing extremely well."

NBC and its affiliates formed the futures committee about 14 months ago. "Our aim," says Mackin, "is to come up with strategic projects that we can also get our arms around."

Much of the appeal of the weather service is that many of the resources are already in place and not a lot of incremental expense would be required, he adds. "It really is a marriage of skills. The affiliates have the technology, graphics and personnel in place so we really are seen as the best local experts in our markets. The channel is going to leverage that expertise."

NBC, in turn, has the capability to produce national elements much like the news items NBC sends affiliates through its News Channel feed. "It doesn't take a great deal of additional resources to get to the point where they can do more," Mackin points out.

The aim is to create a branded, ad-supported channel that would air on broadcast and have appeal to local cable systems as well as part of digital retransmission negotiations.

Ogden and Mackin confirm that the weather channel could be one of two full-time digital channels that affiliates and NBC jointly operate alongside NBC's HDTV programming.

One thing the affiliate survey is trying to pinpoint is how many NBC stations are already doing local weather channels on their own and to what extent stations see the current proposal as one that would mesh or conflict with their own business plans. Mackin doesn't believe that a huge number of stations are doing local weather channels now. "We fully accept that individual stations will have to make decisions based on the strategic importance to their own companies."

At the same time, Ogden adds, the broadcast industry has to get off the dime and start implementing some real-world digital services. "We all realize that the world in which we operate single TV stations in individual markets is going to end, whether the other lines of distribution are duopolies, robust Internet sites with video, smart uses of the digital spectrum or all of the above. Now is the time to act. We all need to operate multiple platforms in our local communities to be survivors over the next decade."