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Here is the weather forecast

The idea of personalised weather forecasting on BBC television was first raised at an executive lunch in 1953. The BBC's then Director-General noted that "...a young but highly professional meteorologist who was in the party..." had made the point that it would be better if, instead of just weather maps and charts, the forecaster himself appeared on screen.

Photo: George Cowling
George Cowling, January 1954

Within a year the anonymous young man's idea had become a reality - with the help of "...an easel and treatment to walls for background..." - at a cost of £50.

On 11 January 1954, George Cowling (from the Met Office) became the first person to present a weather forecast on British television. The broadcast lasted for five whole minutes.

How it is done today

Photo: Carol Kirkwood
Carol Kirkwood presenting on BBC News 24

Within the BBC's Weather Centre, staff trained by the Met Office produce around 100 forecasts every weekday for BBC's national and international channels, as well as a full schedule of broadcasts at weekends. The Weather Centre also issues a variety of weather bulletins for services including Radio 4, Radio Five Live and British Forces Broadcast Service (BFBS).

The TV weather slots may not be the longest programmes on screen, but they are live and unscripted, and their preparation uses some of the most innovative computer software around.

Behind the scenes at the BBC

Weather forecasters are equipped with computer-based weather information displays linked directly to the supercomputer at Met Office HQ in Exeter. These powerful computer forecast models continuously take in data from around the world and then simulate the world's atmosphere mathematically, from sea level to the upper atmosphere, and predicts what is going to happen.

Forecasters therefore have access to up-to-date information arriving by computer, as well as by fax and e-mail. They interpret this using their skills and experience in meteorology, and in consultation with the Met Office chief forecasters, they select the details they wish to use to support the weather story for that day. The BBC production team work with the forecasters to make sure the editorial line 'fits' with the BBC's output for the day, and is consistent across all platforms. They also help the forecaster to concentrate on the meteorology by managing the operational, scheduling, data and graphics issues of the day.

Data also arrive continuously from the Met Office in the form of charts showing:

  • pressure
  • temperature
  • rainfall
  • cloud cover
  • satellite pictures for every continent (hourly imagery for the UK)

Over 6,000 graphics products are drawn up automatically every day and the forecasters can also make up their own symbol charts, or text charts using a range of background maps and images.

The state-of-the-art graphics system allows forecasters to put together a sequence of charts, stills, animations and video clips, live weather cameras and text charts. All the forecasts are unscripted and can be shortened or lengthened as needed, but the bulletins themselves cannot be altered at the very last minute. Because of this the forecasters will often put a summary chart at the end of their bulletin that they can jump to, using a foot switch, should the bulletin suddenly be cut short.

Presenting the broadcasts

For television, the studio is operated by the presenter who, having switched on the lights, listens through an earpiece to the programme running up to the broadcast (and to any last-minute instructions from the director in the control room).

The studio, designed for digital broadcasting and widescreen technology, incorporates a device which, at the touch of a button, adjusts the height of the camera, lighting configuration and microphone level to suit each of the presenters individually.

The forecaster stands in front of a translucent screen on which is projected a faint image of the graphics, which gives an idea of where to point. Blue light floods the back of the screen, and an electronic Colour Overlay System causes any area where the camera detects blue to be replaced by a 'clean feed' of the computer charts as called up by the forecaster (who can't wear blue clothes because he/she would then merge with the graphics!).

Monitors next to the camera show the computer graphics' output and the studio's output, and on a sheet of glass at right-angles to the camera, is projected the service on which the forecaster is about to broadcast. The forecasters start a broadcast when they see themselves appear, and stop when the count-down clock reaches zero.

Photo: Michael Fish
Michael Fish presenting a radio broadcast

For radio broadcasts, the forecast is again done alone, in the sound studio. It is ad-libbed from notes or hand-drawn charts and linked via headphones to the relevant continuity studio at Broadcasting House in central London, which 'tops and tails' the forecast.