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Al Roker Offers Forecast of TV’s Future With Trio of Meerkat Programs

Al Roker is reaching from the solid ground of NBC’s “Today” to the shakier terrain of TV’s future.

While many TV viewers know Roker from his years spent forecasting weather for “Today” and other venues, fewer know that he has led a small TV-production company for more than two decades. The shop, Al Roker Entertainment, will this week launch three new “shows” that he will transmit via Meerkat, the mobile app that allows users to watch live streaming video. Each of the programs will last five to fifteen minutes, and Roker freely admits he’s experimenting, not necessarily banking on outsize success on his first few attempts.

“It’s sort of like radio in the 1920’s. Why not take a shot at it?” asked Roker, in an interview late last week. “You don’t know where it’s going to go, but I think it’s going to be fun to be the first out there. It’s not like anybody’s going to get hurt.”

Al Roker Entertainment plans to debut three new pieces of programming this week, all centered around a topic Roker is passionate about: cooking. On Monday at 1 p.m. eastern, Roker will interview Nick Taranto, co-CEO and co-founder of Plated, the New York-based meal-kit delivery service. On Tuesday at 4 p.m. eastern, “Food al Fresco” will debut, featuring a discusson among food bloggers Phoebe Lapine, Erin Palinski-Wade and Sam Seneviratne. Finally, on Wednesday at 1 p.m. eastern, Roker will interview Raiza Costa, a pasty chef with a following on YouTube, in a program dedicated to the techniques of making French pastry. To follow along, viewers need only log in with Twitter to watch Roker’s Meerkat stream.

Roker has written several cookbooks and enjoys the culinary arts, and said he thinks the topic lends itself to live demonstrations that might just capture a decently sized audience. He recently was grilling and making shrimp cakes for the benefit of an audience via live video streaming and found 500 users tuning him in, he said. As for the cakes? “They were very good.”

For its part, Meerkat is seeking more people to develop content ideas using the service, said Sima Sistani, vice president of media for the company. Meerkat sees concepts emerging that “are more informal and raw,” she said, since being live “creates some urgency around the content,” which will be “different” and “participation-led.” Already, said Sistani, a marketing executive named Steve Isaacs is doing a nightly show with his girlfriend in which they sit in their pajamas and offer viewers “the sleepiest recap of the day’s events.” Musicians have also embraced the service, said Sistani.

“It’s really so interesting to see,” she said. “It’s such early days.”

Other TV executives have seized on live-streaming as a technique to help burnish and promote traditional properties. World Wrestling Entertainment, for example, is letting viewers of its USA reality-competition program “WWE Tough Enough” check in with various participants from the series via Twitter’s Periscope video-streaming app. And Univision Deportes, the sports division of Univision Communications, said last week it would use Periscope to help viewers “authenticate” their subscriber status to gain access to video streaming of a soccer tournament.

The new Meerkat programs will not carry advertising, Roker said, but are intended as a sort of first shot across a new bow: “We are going to do a little cooking together, three days in a row. Let’s see what happens, and, depending on the response, do some more – and maybe be the first to regularly schedule these live, streaming shows.”

People know Roker from his work in front of the camera, but he has been producing shows behind the scenes since 1994 – just one of a number of popular TV-news personalities who develop their own shingle. Robin Roberts of ABC’s “Good Morning America” last year launched Rock’n Robin Productions, an independent company designed to create TV and digital programming for ABC and other networks. Soledad O’Brien, the former CNN anchor, runs Starfish Media Group. Ann Curry left NBC News earlier this year with some money from NBCUniversal to start a production concern.

What drove Roker to try his hand at it, he said, was a longstanding desire to create and write. “Believe it or not, I never planned on being on TV,” Roker said. While studying at the State University of New York in Oswego, NY, he even had a professor who told him he had “a perfect face for radio.” Even though his career proved that statement to be false, Roker said, he has always “been interested more in what’s behind the camera than in front,” even spending his days as a teenager creating short movies in his parents’ basement. His company has produced series like “Coast Guard Alaska” for Weather Channel and “DEA” for Spike TV.

The Meerkat programs may or may not work, said Roker, but “we are all going to find out together. I think it’s like any programming – if you’ve got good information and great personalities, people will watch. I don’t care whether you are watching it on a 50-inch screen or a six-and-half-inch screen.”

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