NBC News Adds Two Local Newsers To Its National On Air Team

NBC Universal is believed to be leading the bidding for The Weather Channel, the 26-year-old cable channel that delivers weather forecasts around the clock and turns into must-see TV during snowstorms, hurricanes and floods.

But NBC already owns a weather brand ­– NBC Weather Plus, a four-year-old digital service that runs a Web site and produces a 24-hour Weather Channel competitor for local markets. What might become of Weather Plus if NBC Universal were to add The Weather Channel to its cable roster?

On Saturday, the day after bids were due, The New York Times reported that NBC and two private equity firms, Blackstone Group and Bain Capital, were offering $3.5 billion for the channel, which is owned by Landmark Communications.

Time Warner, which owns CNN, is also understood to have bid, although Jeffrey Bewkes, the chief executive of Time Warner, said at an analysts’ conference on Saturday that “we don’t need to own anything [else].”

Given NBC’s interest in The Weather Channel, though, it is worth analyzing what might happen if a deal went through. Most likely NBC’s Weather Plus would be blended with The Weather Channel in some fashion ­ the two services are somewhat complementary, though The Weather Channel is so much bigger that a comparison is a bit unfair.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONThe Weather Channel is a dominant brand of weather information on television, but NBC may be able to reinforce its local forecasts. (Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times)

The Weather Channel is the leading brand of weather information on television, reaching 95 million households and averaging an audience of 234,000 households at any given time. NBC Weather Plus is a name for a number of services, including a 24-hour network sponsored by local stations, a Web site, and short weather updates for NBC’s cable channels. Weather Plus has not yet turned a profit and is perceived as faltering.

But Weather Plus has one leg up: it emphasizes local forecasts, which are, of course, the ones viewers care the most about.

Jordan Hoffner, who helped create Weather Plus four years ago, said the service was formed to take advantage of the new multi-casting abilities of digital television. Local broadcasters can deliver multiple channels of content over the same spectrum now — so Channel 4 in New York can also offer Channel 4.2, with weather coverage.

“It was being built as a competitor to The Weather Channel,” Mr. Hoffner recalled.

Back in 2004, NBC was eyeing the high ratings for The Weather Channel, as well as years of research and conventional wisdom that said that viewers value local TV stations’ weather coverage. The network saw an opportunity: with weather departments already in place at its affiliates, it could create local versions of The Weather Channel across the country. After all, as Mr. Hoffner put it, The Weather Channel “has great national coverage, but a lot of weather is local.”

The Weather Channel, then, is about 80 percent national and 20 percent local. On NBC Weather Plus, the split is closer to 50/50. In participating markets, local meteorologists record short weather forecasts every few hours. Those are shown on a loop alongside national forecasts and severe weather updates produced by NBC. It’s cost-effective and automated.

The service, a joint venture of NBC and its local affiliates, is transmitted by 94 of NBC’s 235 local stations. Because it is carried by most of the larger stations, it reaches the majority of U.S. households.

Within NBC, Weather Plus is seen as an important component of the company’s news and information brand. Its meteorologists regularly appear on the “NBC Nightly News,” and it even provides the game forecasts for “Football Night in America” on Sundays.

For the local stations, Weather Plus is designed to be a turnkey operation. But some affiliates, especially in smaller markets, have turned it down, preferring to run their own weather operations. “Part of it is a relinquishing of some control, and that’s been a bit of a hard sell at times,” said Steve Capus, the president of NBC News and chairman of the board that oversees Weather Plus. Based partly on feedback from affiliates, Weather Plus has focused on improving its Web site for the past six months; a new site debuted last week.

Since its audience is not large enough to be measured by Nielsen, Weather Plus has had trouble signing up national advertisers. The channel is hard to find: the concept of multi-casting is still new, and Weather Plus is usually placed high on cable’s digital tier, where channel surfers seldom roam.

Still, Weather Plus has shown NBC that weather is an attractive market. Now, in a classic General Electric move, the company is seeking an acquisition to fuel its growth.

Mr. Capus would not speculate about how Weather Plus might mesh with The Weather Channel. “We were in the weather business yesterday, we’re in the weather business today, and we’re going to be in the weather business tomorrow,” he said.

But the potential purchase was a topic of conversation at NBC’s affiliates meeting in late May, said Marci Burdick, an executive at Schurz Communications, which owns media properties in the Midwest. She recently ended her term chairing the NBC affiliates board.

If NBC acquires the channel, “we believe Weather Plus would survive in some way ­ online, on-air or in a hybrid,” Ms. Burdick said. “We believe there’s equity in what the affiliates bring to the Weather Plus model.”

The most valuable trait of Weather Plus is its reach, with feeds from dozens of cities across the country. Perhaps The Weather Channel could replace its “Local on the 8’s” ­- two minutes of computerized graphics for local markets ­ with local meteorologists from NBC stations.

Derek Baine, an analyst for SNL Kagan, said The Weather Channel had already sought to become more interactive and local. “However, this is contingent on cable and satellite operators making available set-tops with software enabling this, so their channel is trailing their Web site in this area,” he said.

Not only could The Weather Channel tap into NBC’s local content, but NBC affiliates could lean on the cable channel’s brand for their weather segments. Local stations are known for their weather wars ­- that’s where we get “Eyewitness Storm Team” and “Doppler 4000” ­- and some of NBC’s weather departments have been re-cast as Weather Plus operations. The Weather Channel is a more authoritative brand name, and it could give the affiliates an advantage.

Also, sharing Weather Channel talent with NBC properties like the “Today” show would promote the channel and lend meteorological authority to NBC. It might save money, since the cable channel and the network news division could share crews during hurricanes and other big weather events.

Source : https://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/04/like-politics-all-weather-is-local/

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