Local TV facing increasing competition in weather and traffic

By Cory Bergman 

The most popular mapping and navigational tool on the planet, Google Maps, is expanding its traffic coverage. This week the app added traffic accidents and other incidents courtesy of Waze, the mobile startup Google acquired for $1 billion earlier this summer. This is just one more sign that two of local TV’s biggest drivers — weather and traffic — are under increasing pressure from non-traditional competitors on the platform that increasingly matters the most: mobile.

Google Maps has an incredible footprint. It’s always in the top most-downloaded apps on iOS, and it’s pre-installed into most Android devices. With the addition of Waze data — which is crowdsourced from its users — Google Maps is now the most popular traffic news source by a long shot. If you combine both Google properties, it’s a landslide, especially if you consider Android’s incredible growth curve.

Meanwhile, Google Now is breaking new ground in anticipating what users want, and traffic is one of its key offerings. For example, the Google Now experience will automatically offer traffic reports when I’m about to travel to work — or back home at the end of the day (below right). It will also preemptively alert me to traffic incidents along the way, and presumably Waze data will integrate with the service in the near future (Google Now is already experimenting with local news).

On the weather front, Google Now displays the forecast whenever I tap the search bar on my Nexus device — whenever I prepare to search (for anything), it displays the forecast (upper left). Over on iOS, Yahoo’s weather app is burned into the default screen for every iPhone and iPad, and Siri dutifully responds to questions about the weather. On both platforms, the Weather Channel’s app draws immense audiences.

Meanwhile, a recent survey discovered that four out of five smartphone owners check their phone in the first 15 minutes after waking up. Among those people, 80% say it’s the first thing they do when they wake up — not turn on the TV, but pick up their phone.

The massive reach and prominence of “good enough” weather and traffic on mobile devices is shaping up to be a strong competitive threat with the potential to cannibalize audiences outside periods of breaking news. If I glance at a forecast on my iPhone when I wake up, I’m less likely to watch the morning newscast for the weather. Unfortunately, most stations still view other stations — and increasingly the newspaper in town — as their sole competition.

Case in point: a new survey (.pdf) from Stepleader — which makes apps for local stations and newspapers — has been making the rounds in local TV circles. The survey concluded that 17% of people said their local TV app is their main source of local news, followed by local TV websites (12%), local newspaper sites (7%) and a print newspaper (6%). While those are encouraging numbers, the survey only included people who had a local news app on their device, and it did not explicitly look at mainstay weather and traffic apps, which eclipse local TV’s mobile footprint.

At the same time, local TV stations are dedicating more coverage on weather and traffic. A Pew survey published in March found that stations invested 29% of their coverage in weather and traffic in 2012, up from 25% in 2005. Pew concluded that these topics are “ripe for replacement by any number of Web- and mobile-based outlets.” I’d argue that it’s already happening.

There’s certainly reason to celebrate local TV’s growing mobile traction, but local stations should recalibrate their product and marketing strategies to combat the real competition. For example, local stations could statistically compare the accuracy of their forecasts compared to Google, Yahoo and Siri. If a station’s forecast is more accurate 85% of the time, for example, that’s a powerful hook to launch a promotional campaign for your mobile weather products, leveraging your talent to your advantage. And as I always recommend to local TV execs, whatever you’re investing in mobile development and promotion, triple it.

Even then, the road ahead will be difficult, especially on average weather and traffic days. As I’ve argued before, breaking news is not enough: stations should expand into new arenas to diversify their products and adapt to a new future of distribution.