Talk about the weather

When Barry Fisher, general manager of WFMZ-TV Allentown, Pa., wanted to get the most out of his station's digital spectrum, he decided to talk about the weather.

Although few people in the market can watch WFMZ-DT's over-the-air signal on ch. 46, the station transmits two standard-definition channels—one an upconverted NTSC programming (46-1), the other the country's first all-local, 24-hour digital weather channel (46-2). This AccuWeather channel is also fed via fiber to two local cable operators that potentially reach as many as 300,000 cable households.

With little HD programming available to this small independent, Fisher needed to create something special to be watched in SDTV. Simply broadcasting better-looking copies of syndicated shows and the 38 newscasts the station currently airs each week would not be enough to build a digital business.

Knowing that weather reports are crucial to the local farmers and schools in WFMZ-TV's DMA, Fisher and his boss, Richard Dean, looked into creating an automated weather channel that would provide up-to-the-minute weather reports. A customer of State College, Pa.-based AccuWeather Inc. and its Ultra-graphics weather system, Fisher worked with the folks there in developing what has become a programming package of local weather avails called Local Digital Weather.

On Feb. 4, in the midst of a snowstorm, WFMZ-TV's weather channel debuted, to immediate acclaim. Fisher and his colleagues received a flood of e-mail, indicating that the new channel had found an audience, at least on cable.

What viewers of the existing national Weather Channel find most appealing is the updated localized information. Wrote one appreciative viewer from Breinigsville, Pa.: "Thank you for working so hard and long to get our community a 24/7 weather channel. Waiting for local weather reports on The Weather Channel is frustrating. Now I can see our weather any time I want."

The station supplements local forecasts with live video images captured by remotely controlled cameras mounted at various locations throughout its viewing area —eastern Pennsylvania to western New Jersey—and connected to the station via fiber-optic cable and/or microwave link.

WFMZ-TV's AccuWeather channel, which is also streamed to the station's Web site, is on a continuous 15-minute loop: about three minutes of local forecast, two minutes of commercial break, one minute of live images from the cameras and nine minutes of AccuWeather-supplied weather material.

Having access to AccuWeather's staff of 80 meteorologists, updated satellite imagery and National Weather Service data (provided in real time) is crucial to the 24-hour local weather channel, Fisher says. WFMZ-TV's three meteorologists use the AccuWeather data to make specific forecasts for their part of the country—where, Fisher quips, it can be sunny in one county while it's snowing in the next.

Local Digital Weather, now available to any station, is a turnkey package that allows local broadcasters and cable operators to expand their offerings by providing continuous weather maps, data and trivia specific to their geographic area. A station or cable system using the service inserts its own weather personality and other images as a vehicle for potential revenue. AccuWeather also provides all local weather warnings, which automatically scroll across the bottom of the screen when necessary.

"Weather is the main reason viewers watch local news, " says Dr. Joel Myers, AccuWeather founder, president and CEO. Several large station groups, he adds, are about to sign up for the 24-hour weather channels. "This package gives stations a local presence they can add to our system. And the branding of The AccuWeather Channel tied into a TV station in the market gives them instant credibility."

Broadcasters do not have to own an AccuWeather system to buy into Local Digital Weather. They buy the required hardware and pay a monthly fee for the data services provided, then brand it with their own signage. AccuWeather offers three levels of service, the cost depending on the number of homes the channel reaches. Customers must also agree to provide AccuWeather with one minute per hour of commercial airtime.

The new AccuWeather channel also does not need much in the way of additional technical crew, according to Fisher. A single workstation serves as the control platform for the incoming weather data. The station has a second system on site for backup and experimentation. "Once we got the platform up and running," he says, "it has been a set-it-and-forget-it situation."

Although local commercial spots generate some revenue, Fisher says the channel hasn't seen a profit, yet. He projects the break-even point at two to four years.

"Being small, we need to establish a real connection to the community," Fisher says. "Although [the weather channel] is not something that directly makes us money today, it certainly is a service that people like. We all need to understand that there's a significant amount of upfront cost associated with getting on the air with digital."

Due to a lack of over-the-air receivers, carriage on cable was most important to Fisher, who says successful negotiations with the two local system operators (Service Electric Cable and RCN) took about a year and a half.

Since its debut, however, the project has been popular with the cable companies. Driving home the night the AccuWeather channel launched, Fisher got a call from the owner of a local cable operator. Service Electric Cable's John Walson Jr. (son of the late cable pioneer) said he liked it so much that he was moving it to a lower channel (ch. 74) and giving WFMZ-TV full carriage of the digital weather channel throughout his entire system.

WFMZ is owned by Maranatha Broadcasting Corp., the forward-looking company that, in 1992, built a transmission tower with extra capacity because it figured other digital television stations in the market would be looking for antenna space, too. The company figured correctly: Several stations are planning to rent antenna space there. WFMZ-TV also began transmitting a digital signal in June 1999, sooner than most other "early-adopter" stations.

When the FCC issued its digital mandate in 1997, Fisher knew his station had to be creative as it went on the air. That meant avoiding HDTV and multicasting two (approximately) 6 Mb/s channels on its 6 MHz of digital spectrum. To pay for the TV station's transition, Maranatha decided to sell the radio station it had owned since 1965.

"We're not independently wealthy," he says. "We're an independent station, so it's important for us to be leading with technology and community service. In our neck of the woods, weather is a killer application."