Over the years, Denver TV stations have waged an ongoing series of weather wars using as weapons the latest forecasting tools — high-tech gear that's supposedly made on-camera prognosticators better guessers than their rivals.
An example: In early 2004, as we reported, CBS4 was touting a system called "Live Doppler 4000," while 9News countered with "HD Doppler 9" — yet neither was able to accurately foresee "a hefty January 25 snowstorm that came close to paralyzing a wholly unprepared metro area."
Equipment one-upmanship is less common on the local TV landscape these days, but that doesn't mean stations are no longer competing when it comes to the weather, and no wonder. Forecasting segments are consistently cited in viewership surveys as a top reason why folks continue to tune in to nightly TV news broadcasts, even though the latest predictions regarding highs and lows are just the touch of a cell-phone app away.
That explains CBS4's latest weather push — but this time around, the station is touting people-power over the electronic sort.
The station has announced that its early evening and late-night weekly newscasts will each include not one, not two, but three weather forecasters: longtime evening predictor Ed Greene, former morning-show staple Lauren Whitney and meteorologist Chris Spears, who'll frequently be out and about in a vehicle dubbed the CBS4 Mobile Weather Lab. Supplementing their efforts at other times, meanwhile, will be outlet veteran Dave Aguilera and newly hired Ashton Altieri, who spent six years on 9News and will take over Whitney's old a.m. slots.
At first blush, the notion of three weather pros on a single show raises fears that forecasting will swallow up time typically devoted to news reporting; in a Broncos town, cutting back sports would be seen as a sin. And that's not to mention questions about what the hell Spears will do during those summertime stretches when the forecasts are 85 degrees and sunny, with possible afternoon thunderstorms, for weeks at a time.
Tim Wieland, CBS4's news director, does his best to allay such concerns.
"This won't change the amount of time in a typical newscast that we devote to weather," he says. "What we're going to do is spend a little more time explaining what is causing our weather — going deeper than just the numbers. Getting the high and low for the day is pretty easy for folks to get on their computer or their phone, so we want our reports to offer more context."
Whitney "does that extremely well," Wieland continues. "She's been involved in Girls & Science and STEAM programs for years. [STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics]. She has a real strength in explaining the weather, getting beyond the data, and that's why we're adding her to the team."
As for Spears, Wieland acknowledges that he's been a key part of the Mobile Weather Lab program for several years. But he stresses that he's someone "with a tremendous talent at contributing to our digital platforms: Facebook or Twitter or what he writes on CBSDenver.com."
Nonetheless, Spears won't be tasked with coming up with a Mobile Weather Lab feature for every newscast.
"We've been scheduling the lab Monday through Friday for five, six and ten," Wieland says, "but it just goes in when there's something to talk about, and that won't change. What will be different for us is that Chris and Rob [McClure, a photojournalist at the station] will flex their schedule to be sure they're in the lab when there's weather breaking. If there's a morning snowstorm, their schedule will flex, and if there's going to be an active weekend, that's when they'll work. They'll be more flexible and adaptable to reporting on the weather when it's happening. There may be segments from the lab explaining what's going on, and Chris, who's a tremendous meteorologist, may want to do something along those lines. But we won't mandate that it'll be on every show every day."
Beyond logistics, Wieland sees the new weather-centric approach as a way to acknowledge that viewers come to TV news with different expectations and needs than in years past.
"For those who make a point to watch the news, it's more important than ever to give them meaningful reasons to watch," he emphasizes. "It's getting more and more difficult to get folks to make that appointment, so we can't just give them a digest of the day's news. It has to be important. It has to offer context and perspective. We're working on that with our news product, but also in weather and sports, so it gets beyond just a roundup of what happened today. And we'll be using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social platforms just as aggressively."
The decision to deploy three forecasters on the same program "is more information-driven than gizmo-driven," Wieland allows. "For a long time in weather, it was the battle of the radars, and the battle of different types of graphics. But at the core of it all, and what's most important, is the information. All of these changes are content-driven, not presentation-driven."
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The triple-headed weather super-team will debut today on CBS4 newscasts at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.