Technology is Changing the Way The Weather Channel Covers Hurricanes
This past September brought with it some of the year’s biggest news stories, and most of them revolved around the major storms and hurricanes that ravaged south Florida, Houston, and Puerto Rico. Most likely, you turned to The Weather Channel to better understand how it was all unfolding and impacting the communities that were hit. Case in point, this year, the network experienced its highest ratings in its 35-year history at the height of Hurricane Irma, with 70 million viewers tuning in from one out of three TV households in America. A small but mighty company, the staff at The Weather Channel works around the clock to bring deeper and deeper storm coverage during times like these. To better understand what makes a network like this tick, and how it has evolved with audiences and with the digital landscape, it's important to know what happens behind the scenes.
Freddy Flaxman, chief operating officer, has seen a lot of change just in the five years he's been with the company. "The first change we made to the network as a whole was to rethink from top to bottom what a modern storm coverage outlet might look like," said Flaxman. Flaxman, along with other executives, led a relaunch of the network, which included a new look, feel, and branding positioning, and a rededicated focus on severe weather coverage from hurricanes to blizzards to tornados. The relaunch involved rebuilding the network’s capabilities in cutting edge visual presentation, the collection and delivery of video, and compelling storytelling, with the goal of becoming a more visual network as opposed to a map-driven network. All of the sets were rebuilt and world-class weather analysis tools were installed for the meteorologists to do analysis themselves.
One piece that came out of the relaunch was an immersive augmented reality weather presentation, and an expansion of the amount of video collection on air. "It [the AR component] visualizes weather in three dimensions in real time in a way that no other network has," Flaxman emphasized. The network went from building tornados live in the studio in 3D, to using live actual data. “That’s added a huge layer to our forecasting, said Nora Zimmett, senior vice president of live programming. The network’s design team developed a way to show the kind of damage a storm surge might do by using a yardstick to convey how many feet of water that an area would get, and by measuring it against an augmented house or car to really hit it home with viewers. “You can say, I didn't really understand the level of damage a storm could do until I saw it in 3D, or what water can damage at this height. It helps people visualize what a storm forecast could be,” she added. “AR is taking on a huge new significance within the company. There's going to be a lot more to come.”
But the network takes it a step further beyond just implementing the tools to tell a weather story. Today, The Weather Channel generates a lot more field coverage and video of major weather events as they are happening. "We were the first on the ground during Hurricane Harvey, live on the scene even before the event began," said Flaxman. "We are getting live video that no one else has, and I think you see on air a greater percentage dedicated to that compelling storm video." Both Flaxman and Zimmett also credit their meteorologists for forging ahead and leading the way in terms of knowing where and when to place crews in order to tell the best stories. “Because when you have a situation where you don’t know exactly where, which city, or exactly when an event is going to land, you have to spread your crews out a bit,” said Zimmett, who is known to sleep on an air mattress in her office when the network is covering major weather events.
Hurricane season always has the potential to offer the most activity for the network mostly because of the duration of coverage and the length of the storms, Zimmett explained. Blizzards come in second, and while tornado season is incredibly busy and active, the added challenge there is that they pop up quickly and the network is less likely to send out the same volume of people that they do for a hurricane or a blizzard. And of course, the safety of the crews is always a top priority.
“But one of the things we do best, better than anybody else, is forecast,” said Zimmett. With Hurricane Harvey, the network was able to predict a week in advance where the breadth of the destruction would make landfall, which gave them time to place crews in Houston in anticipation of the event. But in other cases, when the ability to anticipate an event proves more challenging, the entire crew has to react quickly. Occasionally, one of their meteorologists, like the acclaimed Jim Cantore, may be placed in an area where a storm was predicted to hit, though it may actually come down to one of the other network’s talent to react quickly if the storm happens to veer left towards his or her area. “We really do (pardon the pun) flood the zone when it comes to a hurricane or winter storm and have a very good idea thanks to the efforts of our meteorologists where the range of places a storm is going to come so we can be ready for any eventuality,” Zimmett elaborated.
While Zimmett asserted that the network’s expertise is in the forecasting and the storytelling “before and during the storm,” she also shared that audiences might see a lot more storytelling “after the storm,” or in the aftermath of big weather events, in the near future. The network has already set up hurricane bureaus in south Florida and Houston as crews are hard at work telling the recovery story and ongoing struggles of the communities impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. “As you see other news organizations start to focus on other stories and politics and other news of day, we understand that our viewers and these communities are still suffering, and while the storms might be over for many people, it's not for them. We'll be there to cover their stories,” said Zimmett.
Needless to say, amid all of the changes that the network has experienced in recent years, The Weather Channel has stayed true to its mission. "We seek to keep our viewers safe during any major weather event. The more effectively we can tell the story about what is going on with the weather in that moment, as well as where we forecast major weather to go, the better we can satisfy that mission," said Flaxman.