Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Press Releases: Looking up

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Thanks to the ice storm, we've all heard them by now: the thrumming, throbbing, foreboding musical themes of the local TV news stations' storm coverage — when the news anchors wear sweaters in the studio, the meteorologists wear parkas in the sleet, and reporters and videographers wear slickers next to snowplows.

All three Portland-based stations are taking their weather forecasting into the 21st century, posting live (or near-live) weather maps and radar images on their Web sites. Some of it is packaging, and some is hype, but there are pretty interesting things going on as well.

The most interesting packaging is WMTW (Channel 8, the Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate), with a grid on its weather Web page that can be customized to put the seven-day forecast up top and the alerts at the bottom, or in whatever arrangement you like; 18 different ways to slice-and-dice weather information are offered up. (The other stations have the standard choices of radar and other maps, as well as graphical, text, and video forecasts.)

Now, the hype. Everybody advertises "Doppler radar," even though you don't want any other kind of radar for weather-forecasting purposes; Doppler (technically, pulse-Doppler) is the only type of radar that shows not only a storm's velocity and direction, but also its intensity and precipitation rate.

In the Midwest, weather-radar competitions are truly ridiculous, with some stations even having 3-D imagery showing not only precipitation, wind speed, and direction, but also the altitudes at which the clouds are located and how they are moving — it can be an amazing lesson in how tornados form.

We have begun this sort of hype, though; WGME (Channel 13, the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate) has "Doppler HD," which, it must be said, is not high-definition in the standard TV sense. Rather, it's an assembly of radar data set up so meteorologists can zoom in and out visually during their presentations.

And then there's the useful stuff. WMTW has "Interactive Radar," which lays the radar picture over a satellite photo of the ground, so you can zoom in on any location you like around the country and see what's happening there in near-real time (it's roughly a 10-minute delay).

They all list storm-related closings on their Web sites, but WMTW enhances the service with e-mail alerts; WCSH (Channel 6, the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate) does even better, offering both e-mail and text alerts to mobile phones. (My wife works in a school, and last Friday, her school-staff phone tree was faster than the WCSH text alert, but only by a few minutes.)

WGME and WMTW have a "desktop weather application" that you can run on your computer. It shows real-time weather conditions for your zip code (saving you the trouble of looking out the window), allows you to watch streaming news and weather updates, and provides severe-weather alerts on demand. Both stations' services are identical, which is not surprising, given that they're provided by the same company ( In the process of downloading the program, you can sign up for e-mail alerts for various weather advisories (issued by the National Weather Service).

For the real die-hards, though, WCSH has gone fully overboard, digitally broadcasting "News Center Weather Plus," though its current incarnation will end with the year (because NBC bought the Weather Channel). For the next couple weeks, the 24-hour weather forecasts will continue, with local current-conditions displays and five-day forecasts for individual Maine towns, as well as statewide forecasts, local radar, and national displays. WCSH general manager Steve Thaxton says he has not yet decided whether to continue the service in some form into 2009.