I watched a lot of TV news during the recent ice storm so I could catch the weather forecasts. Local stations went all out during this storm with expanded and extra newscasts. Reporters were live all over the city showing what it looked like outside, in case our living-room windows were malfunctioning and we couldn’t see for ourselves. Meteorologists were front and center in every newscast, showing us the latest imagery from their Super Duper Ultra Doppler Nine Billion TrueVision™ radar systems. They hopped across the screen with great energy, swooping their arms to show the storm’s movement, speaking with grave urgency, leaning into the camera a little to punctuate the drama.
I actually think local news is at its best during severe weather. They provide useful and timely information and actually help draw viewers together in the shared experience. They just kick the hype up a notch or two beyond what’s really needed.
All this weather coverage got me thinking about the state of the TV forecasting art during my 1970s kidhood. I remember Dick Addis on WNDU, the station we watched most. He was just as animated as today’s TV meteorologists, but he had to be. He started his forecasts with a big map of the United States and, as he spoke, furiously scribbled weather patterns onto it with a big Magic Marker. The most advanced technology he used was a still black-and-white satellite image. WNDU was kind of a trailblazer at the time in that Dick was actually a meterologist. Many stations in those days just had a staff announcer read the weather forecast.
I don’t have any WNDU clips, unfortunately, but I found several 1970s weathercasts lurking around YouTube’s dusty corners. This one is from WDIO in Duluth, Minnesota. Dig that giant map of the nation with all the little numbers stuck to it. Also, the weatherman delivers a live commercial! And check out the hand-written forecast.
If you’re thinking, “Yeah, but Duluth is a small television market; bigger markets had to have better technology,” check out this 1973 weathercast from WLS in Chicago. WLS did have a groovy rotating board with all the maps, but everything on it was hand-lettered. At least they had access to the National Weather Service radar.
In 1974, KAKE in Wichita, Kansas, was using some more advanced technology. They used a character generator to create a scrolling national temperature list, and they had animated satellite imagery. Also, while the forecast graphics were still letters and numbers stuck on the wall, at least they used chroma key to show some of it. And the whole weathercast was approved by the American Meteorological Society – something we take for granted today, but was kind of novel in 1974.
The pretty weather girl has been a fixture of TV news for a long time. In the 1970s, it was often the only real way a woman could be on a news team. KMBC in Kansas City, Missouri, apparently offered no exception. In 1977 they had a big rotating weather cube like WLS’s, but used a character generator for the forecast. Kansas City had just experienced some serious flooding at the time of this clip, which is why they’re expressing concern about showers in the forecast.
As the 1970s wore on, weathercasting technology began to improve. KXTV in Sacramento, California, had a color weather radar in 1978. It was awfully primitive by today’s standards. But I remember when a station in the town where I grew up got a similar radar, and it was a big deal. Despite this advance, KXTV still had a giant map on the wall with stick-on numbers. Also, if you recognize this weatherman as the same guy from WLS in 1973, you have a keen eye. It’s typical for people in TV news to move from city to city during their careers.
Today, everything you see on a weathercast except the meteorologist is generated with computers. Given how unreliable software can be, I’m surprised I’ve never seen a display crash during a weathercast! You might think the old-style weather displays were trouble-free, but check out what this poor weatherman at KIRO in Seattle, Washington, endured in 1975.
All of these weathercasts had one thing in common – they were delivered calmly! News directors, take a cue from days gone by.