Back in the early 1950s, Percy Saltzman delivered the forecast with a chalkboard
An empty studio desk at the Weather Network
headquarters in Oakville, Ontario never stays empty for long.
Within seconds, it becomes scattered with lipstick-stained coffee
cups, maps of Canada and piles of meteorological data printouts.
Suzanne Leonard Feliz, the afternoon program host, leans forward,
pen poised over her maps, listening as the studio meteorologist
on the other side of the desk briefs her on the latest conditions
across the country. Five computer monitors glow with radar and
satellite images, showing current fronts, plotted temperatures
and precipitation for Atlantic Canada. "This is a big country,
where weather is always changing," explains Feliz. "There's a lot
to learn as a presenter and a lot of responsibility as you're
passing along this information. It's not just talking for a
living - it's talking, focusing, listening, concentrating,
remembering, targeting and compiling. You're making journalistic
decisions all the time whenever you're live."
Weather is a serious
business - and not just at the Weather Network. For years, on-air
weather broadcasters longed for credibility as hard-working
journalists, not just sunny smiles and good-looking faces. While
that may have been the case in the early days of chalkboard maps
and grease pencils, technological advancements in the science of
forecasting have changed audiences' and television executives'
attitudes toward weather presentation. The past decade has seen
more maps, more data and more weather information for the public
than ever before, and people can't get
A survey of 3,000 people conducted by
Ipsos-Reid and the Weather Network in 2004 showed that more than
eighty per cent of adults go out of their way to check the daily
forecast. (An Environment Canada survey produced similar
statistics.) With those numbers, it's clear that weather
broadcasters have a responsibility to break down complex
meteorological data and deliver the weather in a journalistic
fashion that strives to be accessible, timely, newsworthy and,
above all, accurate.
Weather reporting has come
a long way since September 8, 1952, when Percy Saltzman not only
became the first person to appear on English television in
Canada, but also the first weatherman. As part of the British
Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the Second World War,
Saltzman prepared forecasts under the direction of the
Meteorological Division of the Department of Transport and taught
meteorology to air crews.
Weather Network's Suzanne Leonard Feliz today uses a green
Though he was more than
qualified to explain the weather to a national audience, it
wasn't easy to convince CBLT-TV, now CBC Toronto, of that fact.
In early 1952, newspapers began printing announcements that
Canada was headed for television and Saltzman sent a proposal to
the station. "They didn't think weather had a place," recalls the
91-year-old, with a smile. "Who would want to watch a guy, a
talking head, talk about the weather: the most boring thing in
the world? That was their view then. They also had that same view
about news. They said, 'We're not going to have news on
television. Who wants to watch a talking head talk about news?
Boring!' Of course, they were wrong on both
But news directors began to see
weather as an integral part of the newscast. Gradually, weather
broadcasters evolved from reciters of Environment Canada
forecasts to broadcasters with meteorological training.
Advancements in technology, including the Doppler radar, which
converts radio waves into images, and the U.S.-based WSI weather
system with high-resolution satellite imagery used by CTV, CNN
and NBC, have provided increasingly accurate
"It's never going to be an exact
science," says Sylvia Kuzyk, co-host and weather reporter for CTV
News in Winnipeg. "Now we have a tremendous wealth of tools at
our disposal and it's a more high-tech job. People are demanding
good weather information." That's why Frank Cavallaro is known
for fighting for more on-air time. Whenever CTV Montreal's
weather presenter is brushed aside for wanting to increase
weather coverage, he pulls out his secret weapon: a copy of a
2004 article from The Cincinnati Enquirer
that quotes a journalism assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps
School of Journalism at Ohio University in Athens as saying, "The
No. 1 reason people watch local news is for the weather. It's the
one story that affects everybody."
neither Kuzyk nor Cavallaro holds a degree in meteorology, both
have presented the weather for so long (twenty-five and eighteen
years, respectively) and gained such extensive backgrounds that
it comes as naturally to them as if they were certified
meteorologists - which is one hope for Dr. Neil Campbell. In
1994, the former executive director of the Canadian
Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (CMOS) helped introduce
a program that endorses broadcasters who have meterorological
training, a meteorology degree, or professional broadcast
training with sufficient knowledge in meteorology to present
weather in a scientifically correct manner. "Back then, stations
didn't care about the weather - it was pared down to a few
seconds on air," remarks Campbell. "But CMOS members were
complaining about the weather quality on television, that people
were just reciting the forecast without really understanding what
they were talking about." Over the years, almost fifty Canadian
broadcasters have met the CMOS endorsement criteria for high
quality weather presentation - Kuzyk and Cavallaro
Regardless of their educational
backgrounds, weather broadcasters, like journalists, must be good
communicators. They aren't just spewing scientific jargon about
jet streams and dewpoints - they're educators of meteorological
knowledge. "How many times have you watched a weather forecast
wanting to know whether it was going to rain the next day, and
when the forecast was over, you still didn't know?" asks Paul
Rogers, vice-president of news and news director at CTV Toronto.
"The green blob on weather maps is just a green blob until
someone can explain it to you."
networks generally hire meteorologists, a symptom of the wide
range of extreme weather in that country, the same isn't true on
this side of the border. "Some meteorologists don't work on TV,"
explains Ian Haysom, news director at Global B.C. "If I had an
opening, it really would depend on the person. The audience has
to believe weather people have the
When Campbell began the CMOS
endorsement program, he discovered that broadcasters with
meteorological training were often more successful at delivering
a forecast than meteorologists, some of whom were "so dry and
technical that no one could follow them."
Campbell also stresses the importance of a broadcaster having a
solid weather background, and with stations such as the Weather
Network, which offers extensive, inhouse meteorological training,
he says credentials are fundamental to the profession. And, in
times of severe weather, having a knowledgeable on-air
personality who can immediately explain the scientific cause
behind a weather event is far more efficient for the station and
helpful for the viewers.
That's one reason why
on-air meteorologists are valuable assets for networks.
Meteorologist Chris Scott, co-host of the Weather Network's
national evening program, grew up watching the U.S.-based Weather
Channel on satellite. In states such as Florida, which are prone
to severe weather, he says meteorologists are crucial in the
interpretation of data to deliver the necessary safety
information to viewers. Before a hurricane, for example, a
meteorologist can track the storm's path and give people ample
time to prepare, or even evacuate, before it hits. With
increasingly advanced weather information available to the
public, the demand for more specific information will become
greater over time.
"We're not going to see it
being all scientists on air, but you'll see more of them in the
future," says Scott, who holds a master's degree in atmospheric
science. "People are getting more educated about meteorology, and
they have a little bit more hunger for the in-depth
And when it comes to satisfying
that craving, weather broadcasters are serious about having the
same high standards as news reporters. Like any reputable
journalist, weather people arrive at the station hours before
broadcasting to prepare the forecast, checking for breaking news
and updates right until the final seconds before airtime. In
fact, the weather often becomes the news. When that happens, news
reporters may take over the story, but weather broadcasters still
play a vital role in deconstructing important meteorological
angles of what's happening before, during and after the weather
Mike Piperni, news director of CTV
Montreal, calls the ice storm of 1998 that hit parts of eastern
Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, a "significant moment of
weather in this province that really put weather on the map."
Weather-related reports were leading each newscast at the time.
"Weather people were working as reporters, as journalists, going
to local shelters," recalls CTV Montreal's Cavallaro, "but we
also had to do our own work, like explain the cause of all the
The simple fact that
forecasters can see what's coming well before it hits gives media
outlets the opportunity to provide the public with vital
information, including local area weather warnings and the impact
of the severe weather on the public. Environment Canada senior
climatologist David Phillips says the media do a tremendous job
of this, but there is also the real danger of over-dramatizing
the weather. "Information should be played, not hyped," he says.
"There's a sensational way and an authoritative, reliable way.
You can't always trust the public to know what's right and
And with a history of weather
broadcasters' fondness for gimmicks, achieving authority can
sometimes be a challenge. Cavallaro hosts the Great Zucchini
Challenge in early autumn, in which viewers send in photos of
large or oddly shaped zucchinis. "It began as a joke," he says.
"Once I brought this five-footlong zucchini into the station from
my grandfather, who said the right amount of sun and rain will
give you a great zucchini. And when people told Cavallaro they
didn't grow zucchinis - they grew tomatoes - he started another
contest called Show Us Your Tomatoes.
her weather career, CTV Winnipeg's Kuzyk swung onto the studio
set on a tire swing. Tamara Taggart, of CTV Vancouver, has been
known to chase pigs, milk cows and deliver the forecast while
cooking dinner at a viewer's home. She was also named best TV
weather person and best TV personality by Vancouver's
Georgia Straight in its annual readers poll
from 2002 to 2004. While such antics may make for fun viewing,
the real challenge is to have personality without the gimmicks,
and that's a balance that successful weather broadcasters have
reached. "It's important to be fun and accessible but not
goofballs," says Global B.C. news director Ian
This past Halloween, Global Ontario's
Michael Kuss donned a cloud costume with a sun-shaped hat while
delivering his forecast, but aside from the occasional exception
of a fun holiday, he remains engagingly informative on a daily
basis without the props. "There isn't always a lot going on, so
you have to have fun," admits Kuss, who says gimmicks are
becoming a trend of the past. "The station isn't going to show a
politics story if there's no story in politics, but we will
always have to show the weather."
Despite the strides weather
broadcasters have made in being seen as real journalists, there
will always be those who disagree, even among their own ranks.
"Weather is not large-J journalism, it's a smaller-J journalism,"
says Zack Spencer, weather anchor for the morning news at Global
B.C., who prefers a more down-to-earth approach instead of an
emphasis on maps and weather graphics, which he says detracts
from the forecast rather than enhances it. "While it's all those
things about affecting people, being timely and accurate as
possible, at the end of the day, it's just the
But for Feliz, the weather is a
journalistic story that Canadians want - and need - to know, and
for the eight years she's been at the Weather Network, she's
delivered that story five days a week. "Some pers-para-pre-bleh!
Perpetual precip. Precipitation! Too many Ps in that sentence!"
Feliz smiles, shrugging off her on-screen error, and finishes the
rest of her sentence with ease. In a matter of minutes, the
CMOS-endorsed weather broadcaster has run through the country's
forecast, including current temperatures, precipitation, isobar
lines and an indication of where snow will fall from coast to
With the cameras off, Feliz steps away
from her spot in front of the green screen flanked by trios of TV
monitors and relaxes at the studio desk. "You have to remember
what's important to people and what it all means," she says. "If
you can connect with people and give them the straight goods and
the information they need in a timely and effective fashion, and
it's accurate, then you're off to the races."