Job Forecast: Degrees on the Horizon

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

While TV weathercasters with a degree in meteorology are much more common today than in the past, not everyone agrees with the prevailing wisdom that the weathercaster without a degree is an endangered species.

Take Al Roker of NBC’s “Today,” for one. He argues that the movement away from the days when a likable person read a National Weather Service forecast is just another swing of the pendulum that leads to premature declarations of something’s demise … until someone comes along and proves them wrong.

He notes that neither he nor his competitors, Tony Perkins of ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Dave Price of CBS’s “The Early Show,” have degrees in meteorology.

Lack of a meteorological degree “obviously hasn’t hurt the network morning shows,” said Michael Bass, “Early Show” executive producer. “Morning television is about personality.”

At the local level, the consensus is that credibility, a knack for storytelling and likability, even lovability, are essential. “This is television, after all,” said Fred Young, Hearst-Argyle senior VP for news.

But the local trend for years has been to start the search for forecasters among meteorologists. And most of those who set news policy and strategy say that trend will only escalate. Thus, attrition is likely to reduce the number of nonmeteorologists as they take their exits and the field of potential successors is dominated by meteorologists.

Like the increasingly complex weather technology that stations employ, the on-air presence of meteorologists gives stations distinctions they can promote in the increasingly competitive local news races.

It says to the community we take our job seriously, Mr. Young said. “We’ve emphasized meteorologists for years.”

“This is not a trade secret. The No. 1 reason people watch, particularly the late news, is weather,” said Dennis Swanson, executive VP and chief operating officer of the Viacom Television Stations Group, who has spent the past two years repopulating and refurbishing the CBS-owned stations that were ravaged by cost-cutting during the late ’80s, when the network was run by the late Larry Tisch. “As we build our stations back to being competitive, weather is a priority.”

Raising the Bar

In this atmosphere, proof of meteorological expertise also becomes important.

And so the American Meteorological Society, the leading professional organization representing atmospheric, oceanic and related sciences, which has awarded some 1,200 AMS seals of approval since 1960, will raise the bar for receiving certification of air-worthiness starting in January.

The AMS will institute the Certified Broadcast Meteorologist program in January 2005. The first requirement for the CBM is a degree in meteorology, which is not required for the well-known AMS Seal of Approval-in itself no cinch to earn or to keep, but which will require higher standards of performance starting in January. Applications for the seal will be accepted through the end of 2008, but the plan is for the CBM to become the AMS’s only certification of broadcast forecast competence, AMS spokeswoman Stephanie Kenitzer said.

Starting in January, those who aspire to earn and display the AMS Seal will have a stiffer professional development requirement to meet every five years.

“It is a reflection of reality. More and more people going into [the TV forecasting] field are, indeed, meteorologists,” said Ms. Kenitzer, who said the AMS boasts some 11,000 members.

One barometer of change in the importance of TV meteorologists is the Weather Channel, which has 87 million subscribers. TWC has parlayed the historic 2004 hurricane season into record ratings and touts a prime-time median age that is younger than that of such channels as Lifetime and CNN.

“We owned the story. We darned well better,” said Weather Channel Senior VP and General Manager Terry Connelly, who dispels any notion that The Weather Channel is a CNN-like training ground for meteorologists climbing the career ladder. “I have been here 51/2 years and I’ve hired more than I’ve lost.”

Indeed, he said the on-air meteorologists-do not refer to them as “anchors”-who have come from local broadcast stations embrace the opportunity to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of The Weather Channel, where a potential hire has to pass a meteorological test before meeting with any executive. There, full membership in the AMS is required. (“We pay their dues,” Mr. Connolly said.)

At the Weather Channel, the slow days start with half-hour briefings (briefings are one hour on the more difficult challenging weather days), meteorological expertise reigns on- and off-camera (The channel has some 120 meteorologists, including experts in everything from tornadoes to blizzards) and there’s no need to trim weather segments to accommodate, say, sports.

And The Weather Channel offers very different routes to meteorological stardom: staying cozy and dry (albeit sleepless) while giving ’round-the-clock storm updates (tropical weather expert Steve Lyons) or by braving the elements (on-camera and field meteorologist Jim Cantore’s hurricane heroics have become iconic). An experienced station and news manager when he joined TWC in 1999, Mr. Connelly in a previous position had presided over a tricky transition that was an augur of times to come. In the late ’80s, when Mr. Connelly was general manager of WKRC-TV in Cincinnati, Ira Joe Fisher, not a degreed meteorologist but a big bundle of personality with an ability to write backwards (something he now does on the Saturday “Early Show” on CBS), headed for New York. WKRC replaced him with Tim Hedrick, a degreed meteorologist with so much personality that “within a year to 18 months he was every bit as popular as Ira Joe,” Mr. Connelly said.

In 2000, Mr. Connelly watched helplessly as Fox’s “NFL Sunday” benched The Weather Channel’s Mr. Cantore, whom Fox had hired to provide game-time weather forecasts via satellite, in favor of weather pinup Jillian Barberie, who works at Fox-owned KTTV in Los Angeles.

Mr. Cantore “knows his stuff, but it was what it was,” said Scott Ackerson, coordinating producer of “NFL Sunday.” “Jillian was having a lot of fun with the guys. We have fun. We like to laugh.”

Even on the shows where bonhomie is big, expertise is important-even when it’s off-camera. Rick Dickert, the weekend meteorologist at KTTV, whips up the maps and forecasts for Ms. Barberie.

Credible Weather

The network morning shows each have longtime meteorologists on staff: Donald Tsouhnikas works for “Today” and WNBC-TV; meteorologist George Cullen has been at CBS for 25 years and produces weather segments for “The Early Show” and other programs; and Gerard McNiff works overnight as the meteorologist for “Good Morning America.”

Off-camera, as a producer or director, is where NBC’s Mr. Roker had planned to work, but when a weekend weather gig was the first job offered, a career was re-routed. He didn’t major in any of the sciences, but he has maintained an AMS Seal since 1980.

In 1996, he succeeded Willard Scott, the prototype for weatherman as source of hijinks and hilarity, and became the new prototype: able to chat with the crowd outside the “Today” studio, deliver credible weather reports from the studio or from a hurricane-swept beach, contribute features to the three-hour live show, and serve as a goodwill ambassador wherever he goes.

“I like to think I straddle the line,” Mr. Roker said.

“All of these weather people are good reporters,” said “The Early Show’s” Mr. Bass, who tried a four-host format that dispensed with a full-time weather forecaster until mid-2003, when Mr. Price became available and who has since helped the forever-third-place morning show add 250,000 viewers.

On a local level, having a meteorological background is a no-brainer in hot weather markets in Hurricane Country or in Tornado Alley or where there are severe weather winters.

But Sean McLaughlin, the newest forecaster on the MSNBC/NBC News weather team, spent the last 16 years in Palm Springs, Calif., and Phoenix, markets largely regarded as having near-perfect weather year-round, but
markets in which he found his meteorology degree served him well.

Mr. McLaughlin’s first name-pronounced “Seen” because his parents, Steven and Sharon, gave all four sons names that started with S and the first son was named Shawn-also helped him stand out.

But, he said, it is increasingly important to have the meteorological degree because “The more credentials you have, the more hireable you are.”