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Cable Operators

Weather in NBC’s Forecast

11/07/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Posing new competition for The Weather Channel, NBC Universal will launch a new weather network next week, signing Time Warner Cable’s New York division as its first cable affiliate.

NBC Weather Plus will stitch together several local digital channels produced and jointly owned by NBC owned-and-operated stations and affiliates.

A source said the Nov. 15 launch of the New York channel, programmed by NBC’s flagship station WNBC-TV, will start a rollout of additional NBC Weather Plus channels in major cities “shortly thereafter.”

DIGITAL CARRIAGE

The NBC stations and affiliates are splitting up their 19.4 Megabits per second digital signals to offer both NBC’s HDTV feed and new digital networks such as NBC Weather Plus, making the signals available to anyone with a broadcast antenna and digital receiver.

Because few homes have over-the-air antennas and receivers, cable distribution is crucial for NBC.

NBC Universal Cable president David Zaslav is overseeing cable deals for the network, and thus far, Time Warner Cable is the only major MSO on board.

Under a broad, eight-year retransmission-consent agreement signed in 2000, Time Warner Cable agreed to launch any new digital network developed by NBC stations.

Officials at Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and Charter Communications Inc. said they haven’t reached agreements to carry NBC Weather Plus.

It could be a challenge for NBC to score cable distribution from operators that own regional news channels that run frequent weather reports, such as Comcast’s CN8: The Comcast Network, Cablevision Systems Corp.’s News 12 Networks, as well as dedicated weather services operated by Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable.

NBC Weather Plus will also have to compete with similar local digital weather channels that are being developed by independent station group owners like LIN TV Corp., which distributes the services on cable in Norfolk, Va., and Providence, R.I.

One source described distribution talks with other major MSOs as “going very well.”

NBC lobbyists in Washington have been pushing the Federal Communications Commission to force cable operators to carry their digital multicast signals.

If a digital must-carry rule were passed at the commission, which may address the issue by year-end, NBC could secure broad distribution for NBC Weather Plus.

Last Thursday, Time Warner Cable’s New York division launched a “4 Weather Plus” placeholder on the system’s channel 731, telling viewers that the network is “coming to Time Warner Nov. 15.”

It’s adjacent to the new ABC News Now digital news channel.

NBC Universal spokesman Mike Doyle confirmed the New York debut, but declined to detail the content on NBC Weather Plus.

Two sources that saw a version of the channel NBC has demonstrated to broadcasters and cable affiliates said NBC Weather Plus features a constant “L-Wrap” screen, with advertising panels running on the L portion, adjacent to the weather content. The sources said weather forecasters at NBC stations would shoot reports for the local channels each morning, and that NBC would also run “weather alerts” on the network throughout the day.

WEATHER REBUTTAL

Executives at The Weather Channel, which counts 88 million subscribers, said that they don’t believe NBC Weather Plus poses a competitive threat.

“They’re coming very late to the party. It’s a very crowded field,” said Patrick Scott, president of The Weather Channel Networks, noting that for years, the company’s biggest competitors have been local broadcast-news outlets.

Weather Channel’s core focus is on national programming, including such long-form shows in primetime as Storm Stories, but it runs automated local forecasts every 10 minutes with its “Local on the 8s” updates, which include radar maps and detailed forecasts with a computer-generated voiceover.

The Weather Channel also introduced Weatherscan in 2000, a digital network that supplies detailed local weather information and radar images. That’s now in 22 million homes, Scott said.

September