Weather Channel: Winds of Change

The Weather Channel is forecasting a busy spring as it puts the finishing touches on a new 12,500-square-foot, high-definition facility that will allow it to broadcast HD programs from the studio. The new facility will officially go live on June 2, when the network plans to offer Your Weather Today and Evening Edition in 1080-line-interlace HD.

The revamp is happening even as the network's parent, Landmark Communications, is contemplating a sale. Landmark also owns TV stations and newspapers, but its crown jewel is The Weather Channel and its very busy Website, which Landmark believes could fetch $5 billion, if it sells at all. Major cable network owners, including NBC Universal, News Corp. and Comcast, could find The Weather Channel a good fit, analysts say.

The 24-hour cable network started a full-time HD service last October on DirecTV, but so far is only offering a few documentary-type shows that are produced in native HD: Epic Conditions, Weather Ventures and the newly launched When Weather Changed History. The rest of the network's HD broadcast day currently consists of upconverted, 4:3 standard-definition programming.

That will change with the completion of The Weather Channel's new HD studio facility, which has been built as an annex to its existing headquarters in Atlanta and is being integrated by Ascent Media. The new building will house a four-story-high, 5,000-square-foot studio that will give the network a variety of set configurations.

It will use a bevy of high-definition, flat-panel displays to show weather maps and graphics as the network moves away from traditional green-screen technology. The centerpiece of the new studio will be a 40-foot-long rear-projection wall driven by a Vista Systems Spyder multi-image display processor system.

“It's a fundamental shift away from where we've traditionally been with green-screen, chroma key work,” says Ross Kalber, VP of engineering and IT operations for The Weather Channel. “We're moving heavily to the use of electronic displays, and you'll be hard pressed to find a green screen in the new studio. We'll have a couple, but they're going to be hidden and not frequently used.”

The new studio, which should be ready for rehearsals by early May, will use Ikegami HD cameras with Canon lenses and robotic control systems from Vinten and Telemetrics.

The new studio is only one piece of a broad, $60 million overhaul of The Weather Channel's entire core infrastructure and production operations. Says Kalber: “We're virtually reinventing The Weather Channel from the ground up from an infrastructure point of view and a graphics point of view.”

The Weather Channel already built a new HD master control room that went live in December to generate both high-definition and standard-def feeds. Key equipment includes an Evertz master control system switcher, a small Evertz video router, Harris Louth automation software and an Evertz MVP multi-image display processor to drive the LCD-based monitor wall.

The network has rebuilt and expanded the technical core within its original building, which now has more than 300 racks of equipment. Improvements include running fiber paths to handle HD video signals, upgrading its Omneon Spectrum commercial playout server to HD and installing a Grass Valley Trinix video router (configured for 1024 x 1024 operation) and a mix of Evertz and Teranex upconversion and downconversion gear. The Weather Channel has also purchased a 1,500-kilowatt diesel generator to provide backup power for the new HD plant.

The network is also replacing its entire IT infrastructure. It is creating an IP-based data network, driven by Avocent KVM (Keyboard Video Mouse) management software, Dell servers and Cisco switches, that will allow personnel to access virtually any application from any PC desktop, including automation, graphics and newsroom computer systems. The Weather Channel has been experimenting with the Avocent KVM system in its graphics operation, and decided to expand it to the entire enterprise.

“It's a giant matrix where all the computer systems are connected to one workstation, and the Avocent KVM acts as a router between that and the main CPU,” says Kalber. “It's hugely powerful from a workflow perspective. We have something like 500 systems connected to it.”

The network is upgrading its two main production control rooms to HD by installing Snell & Wilcox Kahuna switchers. A third automated production control room, based on Ross Video's OverDrive production automation system and used to create special regionalized feeds for major weather events, is already HD-capable.

The Weather Channel is also making significant changes to the way it edits and plays out news segments and longform content. As a longtime user of Apple's Final Cut Pro nonlinear editing software, the network is making an even bigger commitment to the Final Cut platform by adopting Apple's Xsan storage-area network system as a centralized storage system that will provide networked editing and video sharing capability to 12 Final Cut seats. The Xsan, which will have a whopping 35 terabytes of storage, will also be used to ingest and play out video under the control of specialized software from Netherlands-based Building4Media. The new Apple server system, which is being called “Cumulus” in-house because of its broad functionality, will also be used to generate video for the Web.

Updated graphics

Graphics forms the foundation of any weather broadcast, and understandably The Weather Channel is making a major push to bring its graphics into the hi-def world. The network will continue to use weather graphics from WSI Corp. (both The Weather Channel and WSI are owned by Landmark), including its Titan HD severe-weather product for displaying real-time radar data. But it is also incorporating more weather-related graphics from Vizrt.

Vizrt's template-based systems have been used by The Weather Channel for years to generate standard graphics such as over-the-shoulders and lower-thirds, and during the last year the network has started to use Vizrt's Viz/Weather 3D visualization system to present real-time weather data.

“It blends the TV graphics and the weather graphics for a more consistent look and feel,” says Ian Miller, senior VP of IT operations for The Weather Channel. “With the real-time 3D rendering, it gives us a chance to do different things with graphics and be more relevant, not as much of a slide show.”

For example, for its NFL forecasts this fall, The Weather Channels used the Vizrt software to merge images of stadiums and team helmets with real-time forecast data. A nice benefit of Viz/Weather, adds Miller, is its seamless integration with Vizrt's Curious World Maps software. That allows the network to embed maps along with weather data and animations.

Of course, to deliver a true hi-def experience for its viewers, The Weather Channel's work isn't limited to Atlanta. The network also has to upgrade the thousands of IntelliStar receivers installed at cable headends that currently receive weather data via satellite and automatically generate its trademark “Local on the 8s” local forecasts.

A high-definition version of IntelliStar is planned for deployment later this year, says Brian Shield, chief information officer for The Weather Channel, to support the network's HD carriage agreements with major operators such as Charter, Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable. The MPEG-2-based box will be able to render true 1080i-resolution graphics, and will incorporate some newly developed software from Vizrt that is already being used to create regionalized weather forecasts for satellite affiliates DirecTV and EchoStar.

“It will have some unique high-end graphics capability and will radically improve the visual effects in the locals,” says Shield. “It will be a much richer, graphically compelling local product.”