Has COVID-19 Forever Changed The Weathercast?
In my long history in broadcast television, I have never seen an event so quickly and radically change station workflows as COVID-19. News stations went from covering stories to being impacted by the story. While this massive news event put stations under heavy workloads, they also had to cover it in entirely new ways.
In terms of coverage, TV stations were prepared to relocate weathercast operations for situations in which a station was in the path of a hurricane. But virtually no one planned for an event that would impact every station at the same time.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many outlets continued station-based coverage but maintained staff safe distancing. Others adopted simple remote workflows by sitting in front of a monitor with weather graphics or using a webcam of the meteorologist presenting full-screen graphics. Weathercasts have also used augmented reality in the meteorologist’s living room.
So how will the current pandemic permanently change the weathercast and our workflows moving forward? At the very least, broadcasters will never again allow themselves to get in a position where they can’t complete some or most of their workflows remotely.
With this in mind, here are some potential realities and benefits that could result from reimagining how we approach weathercasts and weather workflows in the future.
Everyday weather coverage includes two nine-hour shifts (with certain times going unstaffed) and work weeks of six or seven days. When meteorologists do take time off, some stations use reporters to fill in, but these people are often not familiar with the weather systems and could end up causing more work for the weather team.
In the future, a reliable work-from-home option could create a better quality of life and schedule for meteorologists while still producing top-notch weathercasts. Workflows would need to change significantly, leveraging capabilities like automated weather hits. Recorded segments and promos could be spliced together in ways that are not detectable by the audience. Banter with anchors and teasing into commercial breaks could be done through quad boxes or from the control room.
Remote capabilities could also give meteorologists more time to cover digital and social channels while also increasing interactions with future audiences through school visits. Imagine shooting your noon weathercast at the local elementary school.
This radical approach is not advisable for severe weather or primetime, but could drive more job satisfaction and efficiency if used wisely for everyday coverage.
It’s not uncommon for one meteorologist to handle the entirety of coverage for one or both weekend days. From getting up at 4:30 a.m. to deliver the morning segment, staying around for the noon show and driving back to do the evening weathercast, the schedule is grueling.
Because morning viewership on weekends is high, there will likely always be value in the meteorologist arriving early to the studio. They can shoot promos and stick around if there is a noon show.
Moving forward, the rest of the weather hits for the day could be done remotely. Automated weather hits could be used solely or in combination with remote-generated components.
Severe weather changes our workflows so radically. Meteorologists are expected to cover before, during and after a severe weather event. This often calls for long hours from multiple meteorologists with little to no breaks. Overnight coverage sometimes requires that the meteorologist works through the night or rushes back into the station when weather escalates to the severe threshold (for example, a tornado warning).
But severe coverage could be handled using a hybrid approach in which one meteorologist is in-house with the equipment and data at their fingertips while another is remote. The remote user could assist the in-house meteorologist in the same way they would if they were in-house and off camera. The two meteorologists would have each other — as well as the news director — in their ears. Back-channel communication would also be important for tidbits, storm reports and new information as it happens.
Working from home would also allow meteorologists to cover multiple platforms at the same time without interrupting each other or the newscast. When dangerous weather strikes, you may even spin up a third meteorologist to focus solely on digital and social channels. You could have both meteorologists remote and toss between the two, one covering the big picture situation and timing while the other handles storm tracking and local impacts. Remote access could also enable meteorologists to help their team when they’re out of town, if only for an hour or two during extreme circumstances.
Enabling remote coverage could also tie in hyperlocal stringers in the field to capture outdoor atmosphere shots and give ground truth to the station coverage. This would offer live footage while helping to keep meteorologists and station staff safe.
Rather than travelling to dangerous areas, they can set a “stay home and stay safe” example for the public and focus on storytelling rather than story gathering. In this scenario, the remote meteorologist would do cut-ins, digital updates and respond to viewer comments on social to increase the station’s presence across channels.
Traffic presentation workflows will also change. Currently, traffic is mostly reported on the weekday mornings with little evening or weekend coverage. Coverage usually starts early — before the typical traffic situations begin — and is often done in front of a chroma key that shows a mix of maps and live cameras. A traffic situation in the evening or weekend can spill over to the meteorologist, who already has a full plate. Most stations use their weather systems for traffic coverage for branding consistency.
Covering traffic remotely could improve content on digital platforms. An example might include sending users near real-time traffic alerts so they don’t have to search Twitter. During early shows when there is usually no traffic to report, anchors can use automated hits until rush hour.
Reimagined weathercasts and remote workflows can drive benefits for both the audience and the stations, particularly when reaching across platforms. We should view these current circumstances as an opportunity to accelerate what needs to happen to better serve our audience. The results could also make meteorologists more efficient and improve their work-life balance.
It’s difficult to say how the landscape will look after COVID-19, but one thing is for certain — weathercast workflow will never be the same.
Rodney Thompson is senior strategist with The Weather Company.