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Weather Channel Takes Hi-Def Plunge

Although hurricane season is several months away, The Weather Channel is already forecasting dramatic weather for the second half of 2007.

The 24-hour weather-focused network plans to launch a high-definition simulcast of its programming by this fall. To get it done, it is undertaking a total overhaul of its Atlanta studios and “Weather STAR [Satellite Transponder Addressable Receiver]” local-insertion gear, the mechanism that allows the channel to match up local images and data to the correct markets.

The Weather Channel is investing “multiples of tens of millions of dollars” on the switch to 1080-line interlace (1080i) HD, says network President Debora Wilson. It had planned the launch even before DirecTV announced last month that it plans to begin beaming more than 100 HD channels this year.

“Weather is such a visual thing,” says Wilson. “We’re excited about presenting weather with the clarity and power that HD can provide.

“It’s a big investment for us,” she adds. “It’s a very different scope [than] required to convert a TV station or, frankly, even a network that is more predominantly focused on tape product. Because we’re 24/7 live. We have all the components: the studio, the broadcast infrastructure and the STAR technology.”

Weather Channel’s plan is to first offer a few key day parts in high-definition, with the rest of the day consisting of upconverted standard-definition programming. The network will convert all its studio-based shows, along with new primetime programs, such as the Warren Miller-produced Epic Conditions, to HD by mid 2008.

Live remotes from Weather Channel field crews will gradually be converted to HD, with the goal to have at least some HD remotes by hurricane season 2008. Contributed feeds from Weather Channel affiliates will move at their own pace.

Given the relative infancy of high-definition electronic newsgathering and satellite uplink equipment, Wilson admits, “The remote coverage is the hardest piece.” But she is optimistic, noting that several affiliates, notably KLAS Las Vegas and WFTV Orlando, Fla., launched HD newscasts in the past year.

The only high-definition equipment currently in place at Weather Channel: some Ikegami studio cameras. So the shift to HD requires replacing all the existing standard-definition infrastructure and production gear, says Ross Kalber, Weather Channel VP of engineering and IT technology.

The network contracted with system integrator Ascent Media to help design the reworked facility, which will feature a 60- by 80-foot studio with several set views to support shows like Weekend View and Abrams & Bettes, along with three HD control rooms. Viewers won’t see the newsroom in the new studio, which will make ample use of high-definition monitors and other electronic displays.

One of the biggest tasks: re-creating thousands of standard-definition weather graphics in HD. They will also have to be designed to “safe-protect” a 4:3-aspect-ratio picture for standard-definition viewers, which is the way live camera feeds are broadcast.

Weather Channel executives are evaluating what they will buy and have made a few choices. Not surprisingly, the network will continue to use WSI weather graphics in hi-def (both Weather Channel and WSI are owned by Landmark Communications). It will also use VizRT graphics systems, which it already employs for standard-def, and upgrade existing Omneon playout servers to HD operation.

Initially, Weather Channel’s high-definition service will be carried by DirecTV, which plans to launch HD versions of various basic-cable networks as part of its expanded service. But Weather Channel expects that cable operators will pick up the service, too. That will require new high-definition versions of its Weather STAR local-insertion device, used to deliver local forecasts and targeted commercials, to be deployed to thousands (5,000-6,000) of cable headends.

“We’ve got to develop a new STAR to be able to pass through the HD feed,” says Kalber, “as the current STARs won’t allow that.” The new boxes will have to be very powerful to be able to render HD graphics for local insertion.

He wants to deploy the new STAR units next year. “There may be some relevant systems that launch before we complete the manufacture of the STAR unit,” he says, “but we want that time frame to be really short.”