They are the jesters of television journalism, weather forecasters who deliver predictions sprinkled with jokes, pratfalls and comic routines. Willard Scott, the popular weatherman on NBC TV’s Today show, accidentally set his hairpiece on fire last year while delivering a birthday cake to a 100-year-old guest on the show. And at KABC TV in Los Angeles, weatherman George Fischbeck once brought a lion and a lamb into the studio to usher in the first day of March. Some on-air personalities, including pioneer Canadi-
an broadcaster Percy Saltzman, are trained meteorologists as well as performers, but weather forecasters have well-defined roles on U.S. and Canadian TV news programs. Said Douglas Miller, a forecaster at the independent Vancouver TV station CKVU: “The weatherman comes in after 20 minutes of bad news. He is a joker with a pointer in his hand, and when he’s finished you go back to the tragedies.”
On-air weather forecasting has been a blend of showmanship and informed predictions since the earliest days of television. Indeed, New York City station WNBC broadcast the world’s first TV weather forecast on Oct. 9, 1941, as part of a commercial for wrinkle-free woollen ties. It included an animated cartoon of a lamb and an unseen announcer who relayed weather bulletins. And televised weather predictions had similarly modest beginnings in Canada on Sept. 8, 1952. In fact, Saltzman launched a 30-year career in broadcasting by forecasting the weath-
er on the first CBC TV broadcast, from Toronto, that day. It featured Saltzman bantering with two hand-puppet characters named Uncle Chichimus and his niece, Hollyhock.
Saltzman, now 72, made his debut using a simple board to chart approaching highs and lows. And in 1953 he began using the gesture that became his trademark: ending the forecasts by tossing a piece of chalk into the air, then catching it. Saltzman acknowledges that he deliberately missed the chalk on occasion to height-
en interest. But those planned miscues pale in comparison to the outrageous stunts that some current TV forecasters use to capture viewers’ attention.
Scott, for one, uses a modest painted board to relay his reports. But the board is usually covered with such cartoon figures as icy blue faces symbolizing cold fronts from Canada—and Scott sometimes appears wearing outlandish costumes. Early in his career—on Feb. 2, 1968—he dressed up as a groundhog and then appeared on-camera poking his head out of a manhole while looking for his shadow. Declared Scott, who has worked as a TV weatherman for 20 years: “I am six-foot-three and 265 lb. of cured Virginia ham.” In the same way, Montreal broadcaster Don McGowan once updated a balmy weather forecast while loyal fans in bathing suits appeared on the street behind him—slogging through snow left by an unexpected blizzard.
McGowan, 49, has been delivering weather reports at Montreal’s CTV-af-
filiate, CFCF TV, for the past 25 years, and local critics say that his irreverent approach has helped him become the city’s most widely watched weatherman. But McGowan says that he rarely indulges in such offbeat gimmicks as doing the weather dressed in a suit coat and boxer shorts. Declared McGowan: “I only pull a stunt once a week at the most, but people seem to remember that and think I do it every night. Let’s face it, giving the weather without a change of pace could get pretty boring night after night.”
Still, he and other colorful broadcasters, including Vancouver’s Norman Grohman, say that they do not let their comedy routines distort the information they present. Said McGowan: “You can fool with anything else, but do not mess with the facts. People want to know what kind of weather to expect.” For his part, Grohman, 51, appears five days a week on News Hour, BCTV’s dinnertime news program. And though he sometimes appears in costume—doing the weather in drag last Halloween—he is careful not to damage a provincewide program with the highest ratings in British Columbia. Added Grohman: “People love to see me looking silly, but it’s not the Norm Grohman comedy hour.”
Instead, Grohman spends up to three hours each day preparing for his nightly four-minute segment. He does so by gathering computer-generated information on weather conditions across the country and by studying charts and satellite photographs from Environment Canada. Along with many other successful broadcasters, including Toronto weatherman David Devall at CTV-affiliate CFTO, Montreal’s McGowan and NBC’s Scott, Grohman has learned to analyse weather data on the job. Declared Grohman, who first appeared on BCTV in 1970: “I have been doing this long enough to become familiar with the terminology.”
Although inexperienced journalism graduates earn as little as $11,000 a year doing weather reports for smalltown Canadian TV stations, successful forecasters in major markets are wellpaid—and the job can be a springboard to other lucrative ventures. McGowan, for one, acknowledges that he earns more than $100,000 each year for his weather reports and other ventures, including a syndicated TV talk show. And Grohman, who makes $50,000 a year for his weather work alone, spends most of his time making radio commercials. Clearly, the outlook for top TV weather forecasters is bright.
MALCOLM GRAY in Toronto with correspondents’ reports
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