Wet and dull: today, tomorrow and the day after

Jim White advises a 24-hour cable channel on how best to broadcast forecasts to British weather fanatics
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The Independent Online
Apparently, we Britons could do with more weather on the television. You may be surprised at this, since the past month has seen a blizzard of pictures showing snowploughs battling down Highland lanes, cars abandoned on the M6 and exhibitionists langlaufing through the centre of Birmingham. And when there isn't any snow, there's Francis and Michael, Suzanne and Sian popping up every half hour to tell us how tight the isobars are over the North Atlantic and how the wind coming in from Siberia will make it seem much colder than that, so wrap up warm, won't you.

But according to the French-Canadian media man Gaston Germain, we need more, much more. Casting himself as supplier-in-chief to the nation, he is promising an end to those brow-dampening, throat-drying, bone-aching gaps between forecast fixes. This spring, Mr Germain's organisation, Pelomorex, is launching a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day cable television channel dedicated to the weather. No more need we worry ourselves sick over how things will turn out meteorologically, he says; just tune into the Weather Channel anytime and discover that tomorrow it is going to be as dull and wet as today.

"The channel will meet subscriber needs for continuously available, continuously updated and highly localised weather-related information," saysMr Germain. His company is launching the channel on the back of research which reveals that 90 per cent of Britons seek weather information at least once a day. It makes you wonder what the other 10 per cent are doing; too busy complaining about it to wish to find out more, presumably.

As in all things media, the model Mr Germain is adapting is American. The US Weather Channel has been one of the media triumphs of the past decade. Broadcasting from an unprepossessing shed in an industrial estate in Atlanta (on the other side of the tracks from CNN headquarters), it churns out nothing but weather information every single moment of every single day. Very cheap, very dull and utterly compulsive, the station is a no-frills operation staffed by graduates in meteorology so lacking in charisma they would fail the audition for the Home Shopping Channel standing in front of maps. Every 10 minutes there is a detailed forecast of the entire United States ("temperatures in Minneapolis will touch minus 29"), followed by a type-written, Teletext-style local round-up. Then there's another national run-down. And that's it.

In part, the station has achieved a level of profitability that is the envy of Cedric Brown because Americans are, if anything, even more weather- obsessed than we are (why else would every other building in San Jose, California, a place where the temperature has been 32C for the past 10 years, boast an electronic thermometer?) But mainly it works because the US has a lot of top-quality weather to report on: cyclones, hurricanes, droughts, floods, 110 inches of snow in Utah this January alone. The Weather Channel may be, like most American television weather forecasting, uninspiring to look at but, boy, does it have a story to tell. Even if you live in San Jose you can tune in and thrill, cheering yourself up because you don't live in Minneapolis.

This may be Mr Germain's major problem: the British weather. How many more ways can there be to say the words dull and wet? There has been many an effort to chivvy up our forecasting over the years: a prat in knitwear leaping about a polystyrene map of the British Isles floating in the Liverpool docks, animated clouds with cartoon rain settling in over Manchester or leggy blondes in Dolce e Gabbana micro dresses delivering the bad news about the temperature in Tonbridge (though compared to the bimbos they recruit to forecast on Italian television, Ulrika and Tanya look like proud owners of a Phd in Meteorology.)

But this is to miss the point. In Britain, we prefer our weather forecasters to be like our weather: dull and wet. And then, in a perfect metaphor for our meteorological obsession, we become fascinated by them. Ian McCaskill, Michael Fish and John Kettley become transformed by the power of cathode into objects of our avid scrutiny: how, we wonder as they speak of highs and lows, can anyone land a job on television wearing tweed and polyester combinations like theirs?

In the end it is all a matter of incomprehensibility. Make the weather easily understood, or prettify it or get someone interesting to deliver it and we switch off. And it is not just us, in Australia nightly reports delivered by a boring character called Monty with his talk of the Southern Oscillation Index or Water Storage levels being 73 per cent are a major cult. Indeed, the more baffling it is, the more we love it. Hence our national addiction to North Utsire, Finisterre and Dogger Bank, places unvisited, distant and, on most nights, moderate to poor.

Thus should Mr Germain wish to make a success of his new Weather Channel, he should eschew all idea of up-tempo presentational tics, cut the polystyrene map adrift into the docks and adopt, 24 hours a day, the tone of Radio 4's Shipping Forecast. If nothing else, he would be responsible for an overnight cure for insomnia.