SMART MONEY MAGAZINE

08-05-09

10 Things Weather Forecasters Won't Say

Jim Rendon (Author Archive)

1. "Long-term forecast? Your guess is as good as ours."

WEATHER FORECASTERS have gotten pretty good at nailing the outlook two to three days ahead. The problem is, "everyone wants to know what the weather is going to do next weekend," says Paul Karpowicz, president of the Meredith Broadcasting Group, and forecasting the weather a week or more down the road isn't so easy.

Eric Floehr, founder of ForecastAdvisor, which tracks the accuracy of predictions, looked at high-temperature forecasts from the National Weather Service, AccuWeather and other organizations for 2008 and compared their

numbers with actual temperatures. When predicting highs for the following day, they were off by about three degrees; when forecasting nine days out, they missed by nearly seven degrees. Doug Young, performance branch chief at the National Weather Service, says his organization's precipitation forecast for seven days out is only 55 percent accurate. "You're almost flipping a coin at that point," he says. Ray Ban, consultant for The Weather Channel, says the best forecasters can do is try to convey the uncertainty of long-range predictions.

2. "We're pretty accurate--as long as the sun is shining."

ONE OF THE MOST important things forecasters can do is tell you when bad weather is on the way. Unfortunately, they're not very good at predicting rain. That's especially true in summer, when most rainfall comes from thunderstorms, which are small, unpredictable and hard to track. It's often difficult to tell where they're headed or whether they'll produce any rain. Most models for forecasting weather divide the country into a grid of squares that cover about 55 square miles each, though some have smaller squares. Whatever the square's size, rain, snow, sun and temperature are forecast as a whole for each one. Since most thunderstorms are smaller than the squares, it's tough to predict exactly where it will rain. "Forecasters are terrible at telling you if rain is going to fall where you live tonight," says William Gallus, a meteorology professor at Iowa State University.

Even when forecasters can track a larger storm's direction and speed, it's very hard to determine its intensity and whether or not it will weaken or gain traction. That's why most forecasters err on the side of caution, says

Floehr, issuing predictions like "50 percent chance of rain countywide."

3. "We're often more show biz than science."

THERE ARE NO specific job requirements for TV weather people. Anyone can do it. Some have degrees in meteorology; others have no background in science. In markets where weather matters--such as hurricane-prone parts of Florida--real weather experts often dominate local newscasts. In Miami, for example, the No. 1 local news station, WPLG, features a former director of the National Hurricane Center. But in most fair-weather markets, "if you picked 100 weather forecasters," says Tom Herwitz, a former president of station operations at Fox, "you'd find a lot of comedians and radio DJs."

At some stations the evening-news weatherperson, who can earn between $100,000 and $300,000 a year, may not even be involved in putting together forecasts, which are based on data from the National Weather Service and private firms like WSI Corp., which is owned by The Weather Channel Cos. "Being a trained meteorologist where it's sunny and warm every day is less important," says Larry Rickel, president of consulting firm Broadcast Image Group. "You can have more personality."

4. "Our high-tech gizmos do everything but predict weather."

LOCAL NEWS stations are in an arms race over who has the best forecasting technology. They tout their Doppler 5000s, 7000s and 9000s and claim they have an edge over the competition, thanks to new wizardry like the VIPIR, the Volumetric Imaging and Processing for Integrated Radar, which gives real-time information in three dimensions. These expensive gizmos, designed to provide detailed images of weather, do a great job of using radar and computer-generated graphics to show viewers what storms look like and how they progress, but they don't actually improve the forecast, says Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric studies at the University of Washington.

Dan Greenberg, copresident of TV-news consultancy Norman Hecht Research, says viewers aren't all that interested in the high-tech hype. When asked how vital it is that stations have the latest technology, survey respondents say it usually registers in the middle of important attributes. Says Bill Martin, chief meteorologist at KTVU TV in San Francisco, "What we really need to focus on is whether the guy reading the Doppler understands what he's looking at."

5. "Want the temperature? Don't ask the National Weather Service."

OVER THE PAST decade the National Weather Service has focused its efforts on forecasting catastrophic storms. It has improved its radar systems, added more sensors and satellites, and enhanced its computer models. It can even measure how fast a tornado is rotating. "It's the most important thing we do," says Andy Horvitz, public weather lead at the National Weather Service. As a result, since 1993 it has improved its lead time in predicting tornadoes to 14 minutes, up from six, and can now predict with 72 percent accuracy if a tornado will hit an area, up from 41 percent.

But there have been sacrifices. According to ForecastAdvisor's Floehr, the weather service was less accurate in predicting day-to-day high and low temperatures across the U.S. in 2008 than The Weather Channel, Intellicast and Weather Underground. Robert Byrd, the National Weather Service's chief financial officer, says it's no surprise, since the government has increasingly focused on public safety, pouring its resources into projects like the National Hurricane Center. "There is a niche for the private sector," Byrd says. "And good for them; we don't want to do it all."

6. "Weather is big business."

THERE IS A BOOMING business in providing detailed forecasts to utility and insurance companies and any number of businesses that find their bottom line affected by the weather. WSI Corp. is one of the industry leaders. It gathers raw data and the results of models run by government agencies around the world to feed its own weather models, tailoring them to the needs of its customers. The result: more detailed forecasts than you might find on local TV. For example, WSI can give utilities minute-by-minute information about the temperature in any major city to help determine how much energy will be needed, and companies that own wind farms might buy forecasts for wind speed and direction to calculate how much electricity their turbines will generate.

WSI and companies like it are even having an impact on investing. By providing forecasts for every growing region in the world, commodity traders can use them to help determine whether it will be hotter or cooler, wetter or dryer than normal for a given region. It's an industry that's picking up steam: WSI's revenue has doubled in the past five years, and the company says its business is increasing among hedge funds and insurance companies.

7. "Bad weather means big ratings..."

EVERY TIME A severe storm hits your town, the local news stations put their resources to work to dramatize every angle of it. In San Francisco, crews are dispatched to film snowplows removing the slightest dusting from the highways near Lake Tahoe, while newscasters stand in pouring rain in their Gore-Tex jackets in every major market to dramatize a storm.

Why such focus on big storms and bad weather? "Ratings skyrocket," says Meredith's Karpowicz. During Hurricane Wilma in 2005, for example, ratings increased 141 percent during the noon news on WPLG in Miami. And during 2008's Hurricane Fay, the station's 11 p.m. news broadcast saw ratings jump by 76 percent. These weather stories bring in viewers who might not normally watch the news---those who would more often turn to the Internet, meaning a younger and more lucrative audience. "People are absolutely zoned in on it," Karpowicz adds. "The more information we can give them, the more they want it."

8. "...and it's always bad during sweeps week."

WITH STORMS providing such a boost in ratings, some stations can't resist the urge to overhype foul weather. It's a simple equation: The more people who tune in, the more the station can charge for ads during their news broadcasts. The amount advertisers pay is based on the ratings, which in most media markets are determined during sweeps weeks--periods in February, May, July and November when ratings companies calculate how many people are watching a given show.

Television insiders have learned to become skeptical of TV weather reports during sweeps weeks, when talking up a severe storm can boost ratings. Says one television executive, "They will tell you snow is going to fall, wind is going to blow, anything to get people's attention." No one makes up weather forecasts, but the threat of anything unusual often can be hyped. "Weather people love what they do, and when a storm is coming, they can get excited and wound up over 2 inches of snow," says Karpowicz. Those with the best ratings aren't the worst offenders, says Greenberg, of Norman Hecht Research; rather "it's usually a station that is not the No. 1 that is trying to make a name in weather."

9. "Accuracy? Who cares."

BOTCHED WEATHER predictions have real consequences. People make and cancel plans based on forecasts all the time, and it can be frustrating when it's dead wrong. Unfortunately, there are few consequences for making a bad call. Stations rarely track accuracy, and when it comes to hiring someone or judging job performance internally, accuracy still isn't a big factor, says Karpowicz. "I've never seen a study that says people are turned off by mistakes in forecasting," he says.

That's because viewers think about accuracy differently than you might expect. Rickel's market research has found that even when people say they want accuracy, they usually just mean they want someone who is clear and easy to understand. "People will keep watching a meteorologist even if he's not particularly accurate, as long as they're watching someone they like," he says. Performance and storytelling ability are often more important;

in fact, audiences understand weather forecasting is an inexact science and mistakes are part of the business, says Greenberg. At the same time, they want at least some acccountability. "They expect the forecaster to fess up when they make a mistake," says Greenberg.

10. "Weather is recessionproof."

THESE HAVE BEEN hard times for news organizations, and TV news is no exception. Fewer people are watching: viewership of local TV news fell by an average of 4.5 percent last year. Revenue is down, and with the precipitous drop in auto ads, once the staple of local TV news, it's unlikely things will get better soon. Experienced and expensive anchors are being dropped for younger, cheaper ones. Reporters and producers are on the chopping block. But in the midst of all the cost-cutting, it seems the television weatherman isn't going anywhere.

Weather is key to developing a strong brand for local newscasts, and it's relatively cheap to produce. Beyond salaries, the only real expenses are any private weather forecasting or graphics services used in addition to National Weather Service data, which is free. Top meteorologists may find their salaries getting cut just like the anchors who stick around, but due to their low cost and high value, they're unlikely to be sent packing. Karpowicz says that in a news department of 60 people, the total weather budget including salaries and expenses accounts for less than one-fifth of the total news budget. "We are in difficult times," says Karpowicz, "but we are not considering cutting back on weather."