Weather presenters in the eye of the news storm

Friday 10 January 2014, 10:13

Peter Gibbs Peter Gibbs is a BBC weather presenter

The 60th anniversary of the BBC's first televised weather forecast on 11 January falls amid a winter when the BBC Weather Centre team has rarely been in more demand - not just providing vital regular forecasts but interpreting the extreme conditions for BBC News audiences. When the weather’s the story that expert team is more than ever at the heart of the editorial process:

Peter Gibbs explains extreme winter weather to BBC News Channel presenter Martine Croxall “The deeply unstable air mass remains established across most parts, with various vorticity elements within the flow assisting organisation, especially in areas of strong PVA forcing.”

In other words you’ll probably get wet. Meteorology can be a complicated business but it’s the mission of the BBC Weather Centre team, a mix of BBC production staff and Met Office meteorologists and broadcasters, to translate the meanderings of the atmosphere into something that lets you decide whether to pick up the brolly as you head out the door.

We’re often asked how long it takes to put a forecast together. In fact it’s a process which never ends; in a unit which never closes. Broadcasters are on air right round the clock: one shift handing on to the next, tweaking and refining the weather story as new computer forecasts arrive every six hours.

The daily cycle goes something like this:

05:00 - The early team arrives to concentrate on the breakfast output, picking up the story from the overnight shift of one broadcaster and a dedicated meteorologist. Within an hour they have to be up and running on some of the highest profile morning output such as BBC Breakfast, the Today programme and Radio 5 live Breakfast, where in addition to delivering the forecast they’ll need to be prepared to answer questions on any burning meteorological issue of the day.

07:00-10:00 - Reinforcements arrive in the form of production staff and day broadcasters. Output starts on BBC World News. First editorial meeting of the day is at 09:30, where the whole team comes together to discuss the main elements of the domestic and global weather stories and how we’re going to cover them. The graphics team are on hand to produce any specials that may be required. Producers and meteorologists also feed into the main News editorial meeting.

12:00-15:00 - The main forecast at the end of the BBC One lunchtime news punctuates the half-hourly appearances on the News Channel, while a steady flow of information is fed to our online and social media platforms. The World broadcaster presents a live package on the most interesting global story of the day. Editorial is reviewed at 14:30 as the early starters leave and the evening team arrives. Are we telling the story in the best way? Could we use the graphics better? How do we move the forecast on?

17:00-19:00 - Another peak as we feed into the main early evening news programmes.

20:00 onwards - Build up to the main BBC One broadcast at 22:30. Night shift arrives to pick up the baton, finishing bleary-eyed with the presentation of the iconic shipping forecast at 05:20.

Carol Kirkwood BBC weather presenter Carol Kirkwood Regular discussions with the chief forecaster at Met Office HQ give us an insight into where there may be forecast uncertainties or potential for severe weather. Then it’s down to presenters and producers to decide how best to get the message across to our listeners and viewers.

We put a lot of thought and effort into getting the emphasis right, especially during periods of severe and potentially life-threatening weather. It can be a challenge to balance the integrity of the journalism and meteorology against simplification of the science for a general audience, although platforms like the website allow us to offer something more in-depth which we wouldn’t be able to cram into a routine broadcast.

The move to the BBC’s New Broadcasting House has put us right at the heart of the news operation for the first time. Although we’ve always delivered very valued output, in its new home BBC Weather has become a very visible resource that the rest of News can call on to complement and extend their weather coverage. And they do!

Our first year in our new HQ coincided with one of the busiest periods of weather that I can remember. Even when things quietened down in the UK there was a big story somewhere else in the world, such as Typhoon Haiyan which devastated parts of the Philippines, or the extreme effects of a polar vortex across the United States.

We’ve been able to provide not just forecasts but expert comment and explanation drawing on the wide range of knowledge and experience within the team. In addition we now help with resource planning by warning of newsworthy weather before it happens.

JoThe BBC Weather Centre's John Hammond explains the science behind US freeze There is one part of the news operation that we don’t have to worry about: weather forecasts are still unscripted - just like when it all started 60 years ago.

So if you have a burning desire to join the Weather Centre there are a number of routes in. Some presenters come through the Met Office and get trained in working on air, but a good number come through a journalistic route and then get trained in meteorology. What you do need is a genuine passion for weather and the ability to present complex information in a conversational, relevant and engaging way.

BBC News is previewing the 60th anniversary of TV weather presenting with a day of special coverage on 10 January, including Battered Britain: Storms, Tides and Floods (7.30pm, BBC One and BBC iPlayer), a programme assessing the damage caused by recent weeks of devastating weather.

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