A storm is brewing.
But the weather-related tempest has as much to do with television viewer ratings and advertising dollars as it does with tornadoes and hailstorms.
With an array of new forecasting technology hitting the market, Indianapolis' four local TV news operations are arming for a weather war that would make Dorothy and Toto run for the nearest Doppler radar.
"The weather is an enormous driver in local TV news ratings," said Bill Perkins, president of locally based Perkins Nichols Media, a media buying firm. "Everyone is interested in the weather, but when you consider the business model of TV news, people don't always consider its significance."
Rest assured, executives at the city's TV stations have pondered its importance. The arms race for better weather technology started about two decades ago. Radars allowed local TV stations to have some information independent of the National Weather Service, and advances such as the Doppler allowed more immediate and detailed updates.
Long gone are the days when the likes of David Letterman broadcast the weather over local airwaves. TV weather teams in Indianapolis are almost entirely comprised of meteorologists, including many who have multiple endorsements from the nation's foremost weather-tracking agencies.
"People tell us consistently-more than 90 percent of our viewers-a dependable weather forecast is the most important element of a newscast," said Jacque Natz, WTHR-TV Channel 13 news director.
Shortly after WTHR executives determined in the 1990s that weather was key to becoming the top TV news station in central Indiana, the station made significant investments in weather and leapt to the top spot in Nielsen Media Research ratings. Due to the jump, Perkins said, WTHR can command $800 to $1,000 for a 30-second spot during local newscasts, compared with $500 to $600 on competing newscasts.
"When it comes to placing ads, it all comes down to ratings points and your target demographics," said Ron Pearson, president of local advertising agency Pearson McMahon Fletcher England. "The local news is a very important piece of inventory for many of our clients. I don't know that we look at the weather segments specifically, but we've seen the studies that show weather is a vital piece of these newscasts and have a direct impact on the ratings we have our eye on."
In December, WISH-TV Channel 8 added the Volumetric Imaging and Processing for Integrated Radar, which gives real-time information in three-dimensions. The new technology is branded VIPIR, with its Alabama-based manufacturer, Baron Services, hyping it as if it were selling fast cars to teen-age boys.
Less than a month after WISH added VIPIR to its arsenal, WTHR followed suit. On March 9, to coincide with the National Weather Service's Severe Weather Awareness Day, WRTV-TV Channel 6 will announce its latest weather forecasting advancement, which station officials claim is even better than VIPIR.
"On most days, people are interested in weather as the No. 1 or 2 item in the news," said Robert Papper, Ball State University professor of telecommunications. "That's why these stations are willing to make these considerable investments."
Most stations have investments ranging from $3 million to $6 million in weather forecasting equipment, said Papper, who also directs annual research for the Radio Television News Directors Association. WISH officials said the station's latest investment is in the low to mid six figures.
Thermometers, rain gauges and barometric pressure readers are just the start of equipment in most stations. A typical TV weather room is filled with a dozen or more computers running various programs and spitting out information from Doppler, regional and satellite radars. Out back of most stations is a tower, with satellite and video equipment. The set for the weather center easily takes up more space in the WISH newsroom than does the rest of the anchor and sports areas combined.
"When it comes to local weather, all of a sudden the 200-channel universe shrinks to four channels," said WISH News Director Tom Cochrun. "Weather affects everyone, from driving conditions to how to dress."
"This isn't simple intuition," said Paul Montgomery, WRTV director of programming and promotions. "We do very detailed viewer surveys. In a climate like Indiana's that's always changing, weather is top of mind."
There are those who think the technology is more hype than substance.
"Sometimes it appears to be a battle of who has the bigger, better weather toys," Papper said.
WXIN-TV Channel 59 is taking a waitand-see approach with the most recent round of technology-partly because it's so expensive, but also to avoid over-reliance on such gizmos.
"Facts, figures and maps thrown at the viewer isn't enough," said Karen Rariden, WXIN news director. "This is a very competitive weather market, and you also must be able to tell a good weather story."
Because WXIN isn't the only station trying to tell a good weather story, the investment doesn't stop at hardware and software. Most weathercasters are making salaries near-and in some cases exceeding-those of news anchors.
Though TV news executives are weary of talking specific salaries, Cochrun said, "Look how much time [weather forecasters] spend on air." He said salary is often commensurate with air time. Cable weather channels, which WRTV, WISH and WTHR all operate, increase the demands on weathercasters.
"There are only maybe a few hours each day we don't have at least one meteorologist at the station," said Steve Bray, WISH's chief meteorologist. "Increasingly sophisticated viewers are demanding more immediacy in their weather reports."
In the last decade, all Indianapolis stations have beefed up their staffs. Weathercasters are a different breed from most TV news talent. The increased emphasis on data and technology demands they have a science and math background.
Many weathercasters, including some of the local landscape's biggest weather stars, don't have any on-air experience when they enter the field. But getting to a market the size of Indianapolis usually requires coming up through smaller stations.
"It can be very difficult to find people who can comprehend the information and relay it in an easily digestible way," said WISH General Manager Jeff White. "They rarely work off a script, so there has to be an ability to ad-lib, and that's not easy."
That's why WISH recruited Angela Buchman from Sacramento with gusto, and why WTHR lured its chief meteorologist, Chris Wright, from WISH, despite a non-compete clause in his WISH contract that meant he couldn't go on air for WTHR for several months.
"Some of these stations have an easy half a million dollars tied up each year in salaries for their weather staff," Papper said.
Papper, who directs an annual salary study, found the average TV weathercaster nationwide made $57,800 in 2004.
"In a top 25 market like Indianapolis, the average would be $88,000," Papper said. "Of course your biggest stars will make considerably more." The average TV news anchor in a top 25 market pulls down more, but the salary disparity between the top news and weather personalities is shrinking, Papper said.
With revenue from advertising sales during local newscasts comprising one-third to one-half of a local station's revenue, the weather war is likely far from over.
Ratings and ad revenue on the cable weather channels are a fraction of ratings for local newscasts, but operating costs are minimal and the cable stations help drive traffic to the broadcast stations.