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‘Tis the Season forHurricane Mobile Apps

Hurricane season officially kicked off earlier this month, and wasted no time in sending Tropical Storm Chris hurtling through the Gulf of Mexico. TV stations in the region are rolling out their latest iterations of hurricane-related mobile apps for the iPad, iPhone and Android, offering newer features to both keep community residents safe and satisfy the hunger for extreme weather info among meteorology buffs.

Weather begets news tune-in most everywhere, but particularly in the southeastern U.S. this time of year. “Weather is a huge driver in our market,” said Caroline Taplett, WPBF West Palm Beach president and general manager. “Launching an app like [Hurricane Tracker] makes a whole lot of sense.”

Taplett said that in its first year in 2011, Hurricane Tracker was downloaded more than 150,000 times and generated 5.3 million page views—in a relatively mild hurricane season, no less. This year’s version, with parent Hearst TV producing the app internally for the first time, features enhanced mapping, the latest evacuation routes and the pinch-to-expand interface popular with iPhone users.

An interesting dilemma has emerged among local broadcasters as to whether to sell the severe weather apps, or give them away in the iTunes store and sell advertising. While WPBF’s app is free, one only needs to look across the street in West Palm to find a proponent of the paid model: Scripps’ WPTV charges $4.99 for its Storm Shield app, a partnership with Weather Decision Technologies.

Scripps’ press materials say the app, localized in the markets where it owns stations and newspapers, eliminates the need for emergency radio. “It’s like having a personal meteorologist tap you on the shoulder when severe weather requires your attention,” Adam Symson, chief digital officer of Scripps, said when the product launched in late May.

WPTV also charges $1.99 for its WPTV Interactive Weather Center HD app. Rich Boehne, Scripps president and CEO, has been vocal in the past about garnering revenue for premium online content.

Another proponent of the paid model is Fox, whose hurricane app out of WTVT Tampa, an extension of the station’s microsite, costs $3.99. Christian Boex, senior Web producer at the station, said “several tens of thousands” of users have paid for the app. While he said the station is open-minded about what the right model is for the future, Boex believes the high degree of custom development, including detailed meteorological models, merited the price tag.

“At the end of the day, whether it is paid for or not, it’s about giving people the best experience with your app,” Boex said.

Stations offering free apps believe it is their mandate as broadcasters to serve the public with cost-free content. Plus, the retail model does not work for everyone. “We get requests from people who say they would pay for the app if it’s ad-free,” said Clay McNeill, digital operations director at Raycom, which partners with Weather Channel company WSI on its weather apps. “But we’d have to sell an awful lot of apps to make up the difference from what we’d make in advertising.”

Besides being key to distribution, the Apple Store also provides a forum for detailed feedback from savvy users in its reviews section. While one never really knows exactly who lurks behind a screen name, the broadcasters nonetheless find much of the criticism constructive. Users gave the new WPBF Hurricane Tracker app 4½ stars out of 5, appreciating the timely info, with one lamenting the small size of the images. “Much more detailed with satellite maps as well as up to date info. And it’s free!” wrote user Kimfab5.

Scripps’ Storm Shield got 4½ stars as well. “The alerts are amazing, the app is user friendly. The radar is best of class. Worth twice the price,” posted foehammer777 in one positive review.

Boex said the Apple Store feedback played a big part in the latest iteration of WTVT’s hurricane app. “We got pounded in reviews, so we went back and added the meteorological models,” he said. “That’s what people asked for, so that’s what we try to deliver.”

The coming months are when residents along the southern and eastern coasts look to their local TV stations for weather information that can be, at times, life-saving. And Raycom is sharing app best practices— radar images, tropical alerts—with stations in its group.

“Weather is something that everybody has in common,” said Charles Gray, digital content director for the Raycom group. “With our amount of stations and our footprint, it made sense for us to be aggressive in weather technology.”

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