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History of TV Weather Forecasting <i>(According to Willard)</i> - 2002-02-25

Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations tried to forecast the weather by charting the positions of stars or guessing the whims of the gods. But it was not until Galileo invented the thermometer in 1593 that "modern" weather forecasting began. In 1890, the United States Congress formed the Weather Bureau now the National Weather Service- and today, the most sophisticated computers and satellites help meteorologists predict the weather. Every day, thousands of these weather forecasts are then broadcast. Perhaps America's most prominent "weatherman," Willard Scott, recently described to VOA the evolution of the art of weather presentation on television.

Willard Scott is a part-time weather presenter on the NBC television network's morning news show, "Today" which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Mr. Scott recalls the Today show's early years of weather forecasts with host Dave Garroway. "Dave Garroway would stand in front of this humongous map and was on the telephone," he says. "He had the telephone in his left hand and he was facing the camera with the map behind him. He had a piece of chalk in his right hand. This guy from the weather bureau in Washington, Jimmy Fidler a meteorologist with the National Weather Service would say, 'Okay, Dave, there's a front stretching from Boston down to Savannah. Draw it in a little closer to the coast, Dave!' Dave would say, 'Allright, ol' friend.' And he would draw it in. 'Now put a few showers over New England and upstate New York!' That's how they did the weather: Fidler on the phone at the Weather Service, and Garroway on television in New York [talking] by telephone. It was a hoot! But that was the state-of-the-art! Nobody else had a show like it."

In the next era of weather forecasts, Willard Scott says the TV networks first took serious meteorologists from behind the scenes and put them in front of the camera but later chose to introduce a bit of "glamour:" "The local TV people in the beginning were professional meteorologists. Louie Allen here in Washington was a classic example. Almost every major [news] show, on their evening news, had a professional meteorologist. Then they went to young ladies. I don't want to call them 'girls' because I'd get in trouble," he says. "But they were called weather girls, forgive me, God. But that's what their names were on the air. The 'weather girls' would always model a dress. And at the end of the show, [an announcer would say,] 'Miss Stringer's dress is courtesy of Pontello's on Connecticut Avenue.' They would use [felt cutouts] on a board or draw [weather marks.]"

Today, NBC's Willard Scott says TV weather forecasters use a mix of professionalism and showmanship, what he calls "shtick." "Then they would use professional meteorologists like [NBC's] Bob Ryan, who has a master's degree, but who had shtick! So everything was evolving and being married," he says. "The modern weather guys usually have a degree in meteorology and they're usually very good with graphics and have three or four minutes. The basic shtick with the weather guys today is their 'weather watchers' or 'weather spotters:' 'We have little Sally Thompson who's in Front Royal and she's telling us it's raining in her back yard! Thank you, Sally.' That sort of thing. And the [forecasters] will go out and make appearances in schools … [and public events]. So it's really evolved full circle again, from the professional meteorologist in the beginning, to now, professional meteorologists with a gimmick."

Willard Scott says although he does not have a science background, after presenting weather forecasts for several decades, he has developed a real interest in meteorology. "I didn't even know how to spell meteorology when I started," he says. "I was a weather reader on 'WRC' radio in 1953. I didn't care one way or another. I used to say at the end of the program on radio that it was produced by 'Rip Reed.' That's how I got [the forecast]: I would rip it off the wire and read it on the air. I thought it was clever to say that. Now, I've become a weather 'freak.' I've got a weather station and stuff at home. I follow it; the Weather [cable] Channel is my Bible. I watch them all the time. Like they say, the clothes make the man. I've really gotten into it; I love the weather."

Willard Scott, a weather forecaster with the "Today" show on NBC television, describing the evolution of his profession in America.