Column: The iTV Doctor Is In!: Pelmorex, OTT and Emergency Alerts

Dear Readers
I was chatting with a senior exec at one of the OTT platforms recently while Hurricane Joaquin was winding its way up the Eastern Seaboard. And the Hurricane threat was only part of the problem; two major storms were stalled over most of the East Coast because Joaquin was keeping them from moving out to sea. As a result, most of South Carolina spent the week underwater.
I pointed out to my friend that with great power comes great responsibility. He may have untold millions of subscribers, but the tiniest local broadcasters do a better job of serving the needs of their viewers with their weather and emergency alerts.
I wonder how many families in South Carolina would have run to safety if they only knew how fast the water was rising just a few blocks away. But with the dramatic shrinkage of broadcast television viewing, nobody is watching the alerts.
There are plenty of federal, state and local organizations sending out alerts, but they are not able to get their information to somebody who is spending an afternoon binging on non-broadcast television. And now, with both IP-based and GPS-enabled warning systems, people don't need to be caught off-guard. Localized warnings are critical. "Flash Flood Warning" doesn't have the same impact as "Madison Street is flooded; GET OUT NOW!"
And then I didn't think about it until the Digital Media Wire "Future of Television" conference in New York on October 9th. One of my panelists was Luc Perreault, head of Global Distribution for Pelmorex--the operator of The Weather Network in Canada.
The Weather Network is Canada's equivalent of The Weather Channel here in the States. Armed with a traditional television service, Web site, mobile apps and a new Android TV service, The Weather Network is expanding globally.
As we were prepping for the panel, I realized that The Weather Network is a whole lot more than just weather. They operate Canada's National Alerting Aggregation and Dissemination System, which aggregates and distributes emergency alerts issued by authorized government agencies. Weather, traffic, school closings, emergencies--the whole shebang. The kind of thing you need half-a-dozen apps or channels to get here in the US. All in one place in Canada. 
As Luc and I were talking about the panel, I realized that their commitment to their viewers and users is to "keep you safe." Sounds like a tag line to me.
But can they get granular? GPS local? And, frankly, WARN ME if my street is about to flood?
Here's what Luc had to say.
iTV Doctor: Luc, aside from the fact that (as a Baltimore Orioles fan) I am jealous of the Toronto Blue Jays (winners of the AL East), congratulations on the recent launch of your very cool Android TV App Channel. Who is Pelmorex, and what is The Weather Network? 
Luc Perreault: We've actually operated two national television networks in Canada since 1988: The Weather Network and its French counterpart, MétéoMédia, and their respective Web sites and mobile apps. All owned by Pelmorex Media, Inc. Pelmorex has about 500 employees and operates in Canada, the US, Spain, the UK and Germany. The Weather Network and MétéoMédia are Canada's most popular weather and information services on TV, Web and smartphone apps. Eltiempo is Spain's leading multiplatform weather information provider as well. And as you've mentioned, Pelmorex also operates Alert Ready, which is Canada's National Alerting Aggregation and Dissemination System which aggregates and distributes emergency alerts issued by authorized government agencies. Most recently alerts and warnings have been added for Europe. 
iTV Doctor: I understand you are the de facto go-to guys for the dissemination of broadcast weather and emergency alerts in Canada, a fact that is not lost on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) here in the US.
What kinds of alerts are you pushing?
Luc Perreault: The list is extensive, and it goes far beyond weather: air quality, civil emergencies, criminal activity, dangerous animals (note: for all of you who think black bears in the back yard are cute, they are also DANGEROUS!), fires, floods, geophysical, hazardous materials, missing persons, utility alerts and storms. But perhaps even more interesting for your readers is that we enable our users to set personal notifications and triggers that can be GPS localized (with more to come):
  • High and low temperature points (gardeners pay particular attention to the first frost and the first hard freeze).
  • Maximum rainfall (flash floods can be VERY local).
  • Maximum snow fall (how's your roof?).
  • Lightning distance from the strike point to your location.
  • Maximum UV levels (parents are ALWAYS asking for this!).
  • Air quality level (in YOUR town, not just for the major metro area).
  • Pollen level (in YOUR neighborhood).
iTV Doctor: We all understand how The Weather Network can work in a linear subscription service. But you have a lot more going on here, and I understand you are targeting OTT providers. How would this work for folks like SlingTV, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the rest?
Luc Perreault: It's actually easy and, most importantly for the consumer, intuitive. A simple Weather Network icon on the home page and/or EPG would link to the linear service (if streaming is available) or to our app. But the heavy lifting is when the viewer is watching a show: a small icon on the lower right corner would glow GREEN if everything is OK, YELLOW if there is a warning, and RED if there is an alert. The viewer could click on the icon to see what's going on. But most importantly, we encourage our distribution partners to PUSH emergency alerts (hurricanes, tornados, etc.) irrespective of how the user has configured the alerts. We believe that integrated alerts add engagement and stickiness to any OTT platform. And, of course, IT'S THE RIGHT THING TO DO!
iTV Doctor: That brings us to an interesting point. Because of your alert capability, all Canadian cable, telco and satellite distributors must, by law, carry The Weather Network. 
Luc Perreault: Our television networks started carrying Environment Canada (Canada's National Weather Service) alerts since their launch on September 1st, 1988. Because of our localization technology, we developed an expertise in delivering alerts at a very granular level. Since Canada didn't have a National Alerting System like the one you have in the US, we filed an Application with the CRTC (our FCC) to create and operate a national aggregation and dissemination system to receive and distribute alerts form all levels of government. There was a need, we stepped up to the plate (just like our Toronto Blue Jays!!!) and proposed a Public-Private partnership to the CRTC: we will build and operate a fully redundant system in both English and French if the CRTC grants us a Mandatory Distribution Order on Digital Basic. The system has been operational since 2011 and has processed more than 72,000 alerts since.
iTV Doctor: And now you're coming to the States.
Luc Perreault: As we looked at the evolution of the television market in the US, we realized that the rapid changes in media usage - away from broadcast and cable television networks - left the public unprotected. There was simply no unified system to let people know about emergencies in their communities. The schools have their own systems, governments another, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) a third and of course the FCC-mandated Emergency Alert System (EAS). But much of that depends on traditional media outlets, and millennial consumers (among others) are literally left out in the cold.
iTV Doctor: But unlike your experience in Canada, you have serious competition in the States. 
Luc Perreault: The time is ripe for The Weather Network to expand into the States. We benefit from a unique market position: we are agile and independent. With our aggressive focus, tenacity and win-win philosophy here at Pelmorex we have been able to accomplish great partnerships on the distribution side in Canada, such as the creation of iTV apps on the Mediaroom platform for all telcos, an iTV app for Videotron on the Alticast platform, and building an interactive local forecast for the Bell TV satellite service, based on OpenTV. Furthermore, in addition to our partnership with the Federal Government on Public Alerting we also work with each province's health authorities on disseminating Air Quality Information for those who suffer from respiratory ailments, and we have created a pollen level forecast, and a real-time UV report/forecast to help prevent skin cancer in Canada. Our plan is to take our weather and alerting expertise and leverage our mix of linear content with interactive apps to bring multiplatform deals and access to this market.
iTV Doctor: With consumers moving away from linear television, it seems like weather information has lost a bit of its luster. 
Luc Perreault: For all legacy television networks in North America and Europe, the shift in distribution and viewership dramatically changed the economics--it's difficult to expand to new services when your core business is challenged. We all know that the consumers are deciding what, where and how they want to consume media, and the industry is responding. But weather, traffic, emergencies and even user-generated alerts are a universal need, and that's where The Weather Network steps in. We're just faster and more flexible. We are following the consumers' lead--hence the multiplatform ecosystem we have created and continue to build. The latest addition you mentioned off the top is our Android TV app channel which actually combines the capabilities of interactive apps with the engaging nature of a near live TV experience to provide local weather and alerts at the click of a button. Combined with our longstanding experience developing innovative apps for mobile devices, we can keep consumers informed and safe when they are away from either their TV set or PC. The Weather Network is about providing your weather when it really matters on any platform that a consumer chooses.
iTV Doctor: It's going to be interesting to see how this develops. We'll all be watching. And will we see you at Tracy Swedlow's TVOT NYC on December 3rd?
Luc Perreault: That's a key opportunity for us. We'll be there!

The iTV Doctor is Rick Howe, who provides interactive video consulting services to programmers, advertisers and technology providers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was inducted into The Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms.


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