Weather Channel Preps for Hurricane Season

After launching a new high-definition studio and HD truck in just before the 2008 hurricane season, The Weather Channel is planning for more coverage of the 2009 season from the field even though it is not planning any major HD upgrades to its three mobile trucks. Instead, Weather will be working closer with one of its new owners, NBC Universal, to expand its field coverage.

Last year's sale of the network to a consortium of NBC Universal, Bain Capital and the Blackstone Group "has opened up a whole new world for us," said Nathan Smith, vice president of broadcast operations at Weather. "After being a standalone network, we now have resources from NBC News and their affiliates we didn't have last year."

As a result of the increased sharing of resources between Weather and NBCU, "you will see a lot more coverage from the field on The Weather Channel and you will see more of our coverage from the field on NBC," Smith added.

For its HD coverage of the 2009 hurricane season, Weather will be able to use its Atlanta-based HD truck and NBC's HD trucks.

The Atlanta truck was upgraded to single path HD last year and travels widely throughout the Southeast supplying HD material to Weather and its affiliates. It supplies about 10% of the network's field coverage.

Weather Channel also has trucks in Chicago and New York that send back 16x9 feeds in standard-definition.

The Atlanta truck uses the Panasonic AJ-HPX2000 cameras and Tandberg encoders for HD uplinks, which are done in MPEG-4, according to Weather Channel senior manager of broadcast operations and special projects John Thayer. The network does limited editing from the field.

"It has been a very smooth transition to HD," Smith said, but he admitted the move has forced them to make some adjustments.

"In standard-definition, rain droplets just used to be part of the process, but in HD one thing you really notice is rain and the droplets on the lens," he said. "You really have to keep that in mind."

Managing all the different formats, is another major challenge, Thayer added. "The Weather Channel wants HD from the field but some [other affiliates] may want 16x9 SD or 4x3 SD," he said.

The network also had to address signal delays. "Anytime you're going to MPEG-4 you're adding an extra delay," Thayer said. "So we had to do a lot of testing on what was an acceptable delay." Eventually they were able to get that down to about 320 microseconds.

This year, as part of the expanded field coverage, the channel is upgrading its studio so that it will be able to accept up to 8 HD/SD remote feeds into each control room.

In 2010, Smith said Weather is likely to upgrade the Atlanta truck to dual path HD and to upgrade first the Chicago and then the New York truck to HD field production.