While not all stations are broadcasting in high-def, if they’re upgrading their weather gear, they’re looking for that capability plus other features that enhance the on-air look.
It’s almost a given that any new weather graphics system purchased by a TV station will be HD or at least HD ready, even though the station may be many months or years from upgrading its newscast to HD.
What’s really driving the weather system market are all those other whiz-bang extras — virtual sets, global live radar and realistic 3-D — that can give a weathercast a leg up on the competition.
So that’s what major providers of weather equipment and services — AccuWeather, WSI, Weather Central, Baron Services, Weather Nation and VizRT among them — are focused on.
According the vendors, local HD weather is still in its infancy, waiting, in most cases, for stations to gather all the other pieces necessary to produce live HD newscasts.
“Everything we produce is in HD,” says Weather Nation President Todd Frostad. But only two out of the 30 stations using his company’s weather services is broadcasting in HD, he says.
AccuWeather President Joel Myers pegs the percentage of AccuWeather stations on air in HD at between 15 and 20. “But that’ll be growing,” he says.
“The software that comes with our system is HD-ready,” Myers says. “One of our technical people will visit the station to repurpose everything for HD, for a small nominal fee.”
Ran Yakir, head of VizRT research and development, weather and maps, says about 20 percent of VizWeather users are running HD. “The transition of weather to HD, at least with our customers, is dictated by the decision to migrate to HD for all the graphics.”
Some stations are simply broadcasting weathercasts in 16×9 SD. “When budgets got tightened, the station GMs waited,” says Bill Dow, vice president of product management, WSI. “They focused on the rest of the infrastructure first.”
At WBMA, Allbritton’s ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., GM Mike Murphy reports that, although their WSI weather graphics product is HD, they are downconverting it to SD.
“We don’t broadcast HD yet,” he says. “We’re looking forward to that happening.”
One example of a station that phased-in HD weather is WTVT, the Fox O&O in Tampa, Fla.
News Director Mike McClain says the station made a commitment to Baron’s Omni HD product in fall 2008, just as their HD upgrade began.
“Although we knew we wouldn’t get the benefit of the HD immediately, even in SD it was a vast improvement,” he says. “And we knew we would be ready and have the box performing at a better clip by the time we went HD.”
And it was, he says, when the station was finally able to switch to HD news in June.
Weathercast now require numerous tools, including realistic 3-D graphics, live radar and video and virtual sets that bring the illusion of weather to the set.
In a media-saturated age, McClain says, “our viewers have a huge expectation for realistic graphics.”
And the vendors compete to provide the best and newest tools.
AccuWeather’s CinemaLive HD, which integrates Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, allows stations to create virtual sets based on weather events.
“It’s a true 360-degree environment,” Myers says. “The viewing space can include virtual set elements, 3-D objects, and even realistic weather animations.”
AccuWeather also recently introduced SpaceCommand, which extends the capabilities of the 360-degree environment. Within that virtual world, the weathercaster is in full control of the flow of the story, interacting in real-time with CinemaLive HD’s special effects.
He or she can animate story elements, move them in three dimensions and then fade them out of view and bring radar displays, video and 3D graphics to the foreground.
Also new from AccuWeather are upgrades to the graphics, especially for water-related effects including wet surface reflections and rain puddles.
McClain likes the range of features that come with Baron’s Omni, including the fact that it’s a 64-bit renderless platform. “In the past, with another manufacturer’s box, you might have to set up a scene and wait for it to render,” he says. “With this, we can fly anywhere in the country or the world to observe weather conditions.”
It’s not unusual, McClain adds, for one of the station’s meteorologists to use the Omni to go to the coast of Africa to watch a weather system develop.
Another feature McClain likes is Omni’s ability to integrate live video within the display. “With previous systems, you needed another box to display an IP camera,” he says.
The station has set up six IP cameras around Tampa Bay and plans on installing more.
Omni also offers what McClain calls “very robust” 3-D modeling.
“You can see it with Google Earth,” he says. “When we fly into downtown Tampa Bay, you see all the skyscrapers in 3-D, with the info displayed along with those models, so you get a clear idea of where the weather is.”
The 3D weather visualization product from Weather Central is 3D: LIVE. Its interactive tools include MagicTRAK, which lets the weathercaster use the tip of a finger to interact with data, animate numbers and highlight areas in real-time; Scene Launch, which lets the weathercaster switch the image (using MagicTRAK) to any video source or image or content from a URL; telestration, which allows the user to move, draw and animate symbols and any other visuals over live video or on-camera; and — a fun one — HD Clouds for creating realistic-looking cumulus, cirrus and stratus clouds.
In acknowledgement that more and more stations are integrating images to and from the Web, Weather Central’s URL Grabber is a tool that captures Web images for on-air playback as static images or time-lapsed photography. In addition to Microsoft Virtual Earth, Weather Central provides tools for mapping and aerial photography of areas, drilling down all the way to street level.
From Vizrt, Viz Weather is another fully 3D weather graphics system that relies on an additional set of tools. Templates are first created within Viz Curious Maps, a branded mapping and geographic animation software that allows stations to create branded animated maps for weather reporting.
Templates can then be accessed through the Viz Trio character generator, the Viz Content Pilot for template-based graphics and Viz Weather for the production and play-out of real-time weather visualization.
For additional effects, stations can use Viz Artist for animation and visual effects. For weather information, Viz Weather interfaces to third party or local weather services.
Similar in part to AccuWeather’s franchise model, WeatherNation also offers a total weather-casting solution. “We’re a white-box weather provider,” says president Frostad. “We do contract weather shows for network affiliates and PBS stations.”
With seven on-air meteorologists who work in three HD facilities, Frostad says, the company offers five different Web and mobile formats. “Our stations get a lot of different streams from us,” he says. To build a program that works for each market, the WeatherNation team meets with the station’s news director, producers and others to craft a weathercast that is consistent with the rest of the station’s local offerings.
WeatherNation relies on a variety of 3D graphics solutions, as well as 3D Doppler, Google Earth Pro and MeteoEarth, an touch-screen interactive 3D globe that allows the weathercaster to zoom in, highlight areas and add live radar and graphics.
At WBMA, Murphy likes the ability of the WSI system to integrate video. “We have a SkyCam network with close to 15 different live video cameras that we can incorporate into the daily newscast,” he says. “We can also integrate Google Earth, which allows us to target and isolate an area for the viewer.”
WSI’s Dow notes that the company’s latest system, TruVu Max, emphasizes realistic 3-D environments.
“We married Google Earth with realistic light and shadows,” he says. “It also has the Live Line-ups feature that allows you to create different weather scenes into the presentation. It’s not a virtual set, but it’s all in 3-D and has a high level of realism.”
At WBAL, Hearst Television’s NBC affiliate in Baltimore, News Director Michelle Butt raves about the clarity of the radar with WSI Max.
“The graphics are more vibrant and resonate,” she says. “When they show storms moving across the Atlantic, they have great graphics with the globe, and then they push down to the actual storm. It’s just great-looking TV.”
Whether a station is broadcasting in HD or not, having cutting-edge weather graphics is considered vital.
“Weather is a story, like anything else we do in local news,” says Butt. “It’s the universal equalizer in any marketplace and goes to the heart of what the station does.”