The changing climate of weather forecasts

From isobars and trained meteorologists to 3-D graphics and pretty faces, the evolution of weather forecasts is telling.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Am I the only person who finds it impossible to pay attention to television weather forecasts? There you are, having watched the conclusion to the BBC’s dreary and inconsequential local news bulletin, and you wait to see what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow. But upon its commencement you are propelled into a hypnotic trance from which you emerge with not the faintest clue as to whether it’s going to be rainy or sunny in your part of the country.

There may be a couple of reasons for this. Perhaps the BBC’s forecasts are so distracting because the image seems to drunkenly meander around the British Isles, leaving one feeling dizzy and in a stupor. ITV’s and Sky’s forecasts aren’t any easier to concentrate on, either. Instead of asking yourself what tomorrow holds, you find yourself pondering: ‘Why are weather girls always pregnant?’

Perhaps weather forecasts are inherently soporific, like BBC Radio 4’s late-night shipping forecast, which, famously, many people use as a sleeping aid. It’s a pity, really, as the weather forecast has the unwitting capacity to tell us much about society at large.

For instance, it exposes the anglocentric nature of the United Kingdom, which, contrary to Unionist protestations is not an equal partnership of four nations. The forecasts always begin with the weather in England before ‘moving on’ to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And the manner in which the BBC’s weather map is skewed at an angle, purportedly to give it a 3-D effect, has the concomitant effect of making England look far bigger than it actually is in proportion to Scotland – the Shetland Islands have now practically vanished.

Only one concession is given in seeking to please people in the UK’s peripheral nations: Londonderry in Northern Ireland never features on the BBC’s maps, presumably for fear of offending Irish nationalists if they called it that, and Unionists if they didn’t. And to allay suspicions that the BBC is indulging in meteorological imperialism (or because they don’t pay the BBC licence fee) it no longer tells us what the weather is going to be like in the Republic of Ireland.

In the Republic, too, RTE’s broadcasts reflect that country’s changing attitudes: back in the 1980s they used to portray the island floating isolated upon a blue background, but now they are geographically representational, so you can actually see the edges of Scotland and Wales peeking from the right-hand side of your screen – an admission that Britain does exist and signifying the fact that a post-isolationist Ireland is no longer scared of the outside world.

Naturally, many Scots took umbrage at the BBC’s decision in 2005 to introduce its 3-D-style, tilted map (1). But the Scots weren’t the only ones to have gradually become annoyed by the BBC’s weather forecasts. Purists resented the disappearance of isobars, citing it as an example of the BBC dumbing down. Some of the same purists also resent the gradual disappearance of weather forecasters such as Bill Giles and Michael Fish, who were bona fide meteorologists, often to be replaced by younger, female presenters who were easier on the eye (2).

So, in a way, perhaps the BBC is just a victim of a changing culture at large: one that is more visually- and less cerebrally-orientated, in which youth, looks, femininity and immediacy are valued more than age, wisdom, masculinity and patience. There is also less faith in science than there used to be, say, 40 years ago, which is why presenters say there is going to a ‘likelihood’ of rain, rather than ‘there is going to be rain’; predictive sciences like meteorology are now seen as soft and vague – probably because we placed too much faith in them in the first place, or, more accurately, misunderstood their very nature. Poor old Michael Fish was on the receiving end of this misapprehension when in 1987 he failed to see the Great Storm coming, content instead to reassure an anxious viewer that there was nothing to worry about (3). People seemed to forget that Michael Fish is a scientist, not a clairvoyant.

But the upshot of regarding weather forecasting as visual entertainment rather than an information service is that it is hard to take forecasts, or forecasters, seriously. One can see this mirrored in popular culture, in which weather forecasters are often portrayed with derision. Take the 1995 movie To Die For, in which Nichole Kidman played a shallow and manipulative weather girl; or the weatherman in the 1990s comedy The Day Today (played by David Schneider) who merely talked in nonsensical metaphors, such as ‘that’s about as warm as going into a heated drawing room after chopping some wood’ and describing gloomy weather as ‘a bit like waking up next to a corpse’; and I don’t think it a coincidence that Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), the weatherman in the 2005 film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is, by his own admission, ‘mentally retarded’ (4).

This is why I think it impossible to pay attention to weather forecasts. Why should I take them seriously, when even television bosses don’t take them seriously?

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Why the weather’s causing a storm, BBC News, 20 May 2005

(2) BBC’s weather girl power, BBC News, 21 February 2000

(3) See Michael Fish’s over confident 1987 weather prediction here.

(4) See Anchorman clip here.

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Topics Culture


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