Fair Weather Reporting?

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"Is it going to rain today? Let me check the news." How many of us in India say that? Not too many, is the guess. But that doesn't deter channels from assiduously continuing with the weather reporting segment and pumping in money to keep up to date with the latest technologies.

Though still in a nascent stage, weather coverage is a growing segment. And news channels are seriously eyeing at it as a revenue source.

None too reliable one stop source

News channels in India rely heavily on the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) as their only source of information on the latest updates on weather conditions around the country. More often than not, however, the IMD is not quick in giving instant updates or for that matter even credible information.

The buck stops at highs and lows

As a result, weather reporting basically comprises information on sunrise and sunset, humidity along with maximum and minimum temperatures.  

Most news channel heads admit that weather reporting in India has a long way to go before it can match world class standards. "Weather reporting in India has not evolved yet and is limited only to temperature reporting. Moreover, weather forecasting as a scientific exercise is largely unscientific," says Star News CEO Uday Shankar.

A poll conducted on Digital Spy website asking if there should be a weather channel on Sky revealed the following results, which speaks for itself:

This is not so in the matured countries which have dedicated weather channels, grown on more sophisticated state-run weather forecast systems. UK's Sky platform, for instance, has The Weather Channel beaming weather conditions and reports that go far beyond simple forecasts: On how the weather affects everything, from industry and agriculture to the environment and everyday lives of people.

Move over to America and you have the US Weather Channel that grabs attention of over 87 million US households. Its website - www.weather.com - attracts 20 million unique users per month.

India is nowhere in comparison. But weather reporting can certainly be made into a winning proposition, if thoroughly thought through. India TV chairman Rajat Sharma is of the opinion that in two or three year's time, India too will have its weather focused channels which are feasible in a direct-to-home (DTH) environment. "When the cost of uplinking and infrastructure will go down, a weather channel can certainly beam in India too," he says.

That, though, is for the future. Aaj Tak news director QW Naqvi says that the IMD works like any other governmental department, has its own rigid rules, and channels have no choice but to comply. The common grouse among broadcasters is that weather is not really taken seriously in India. But if worked upon, it can definitely become "news you can use."

Backend infrastructure

Let's now take a look at the kind of backend infrastructure that is required for weather reporting. As far as the BBC is concerned, their weather centre is based in London's BBC Television Centre and produces around 100 forecasts every weekday. This is equivalent to over 22 hours each week for the BBC's national and international channels, including BBC World.

BBC weather reporter Jo Farrow

"The MET office, based in Exeter, provides us up-to-date meteorological data and we have highly skilled and experienced presenters, who present the weather reports for television and radio. As far as the BBC World hourly weather bulletins are concerned, the MET office receives observations on weather conditions from around the globe from the World Meteorological Organisation through satellite and radar imagery. It then uses one of the most powerful computers in the world to run a model of how the Earth's atmosphere is likely to behave. The BBC has a state-of-the-art graphics system which allows forecasters to put together forecast bulletins using all kinds of different charts, stills, animations, video clips, live weather cameras and basic text," explains BBC Weather Centre manager Andrew Lane.

In India, on the other hand, news channels' regular correspondents and reporters across the country don the garb of a weather man in case there is a need to report on some drastic change in weather. A case in point is the recent snow blitz in North India, especially Jammu and Kashmir's capital Srinagar and the surrounding areas. Most news channels had their Srinagar correspondents reporting on the weather conditions there. Reportage was mostly on the current situations of the highways, how people were stranded and about trade and commerce coming to a complete halt. What was missing, though, were the details on the reasons as to why this sudden snow explosion, the heaviest in the last 30 years or so, came in the first place. That is the information that should have been forthcoming from the IMD, broadcasters opine.

Zee News editor Alka Saxena

Says Zee News editor Alka Saxena, "The IMD has a typical government attitude and is very rigid when it comes to providing us with satellite pictures and other critical information. Our reporters can only tell what they see around them but how can they know the exact causes of the weather change and the technicalities involved in the same? These issues are also important as people need to be informed about these things."

Minister of state for science, technology and oceanography Kapil Sibal recently admitted that the IMD was like the police in Bollywood movies - they always arrive after the crime has been committed or when things are under control!

Commenting on the kind of infrastructure required for weather reporting, CNN World Weather Center international weather anchor Femi Oke says, "Computers, computers, computers! They have completely changed and improved the way we forecast. It's now possible to get weather data and forecasts from around the world at the click of a mouse. It never fails to amaze me, how much better forecasters are now with all the technology we have access to."

India too diverse

Keeping aside the obvious lack of cooperation from the IMD, there are other problems that news channels face in this area. Oke says, "The reality is that with global weather forecasts we're always pushed for time. We have the same time often allowed for a national forecast, to try and cover weather for several continents. A regular request in our Email box is for us to cover specific cities and regions. If we were able to please everybody, the weather forecast would be over an hour long!"

India has specific problems, being a large country with diverse climatic conditions. Says Sharma, "A common grouse that we receive from a lot of people is that weather information is not provided for all the regions of the country. But it is really not possible to do that. It gets too cumbersome."

Star News CEO Uday Shankar

Shankar, on the other hand, says, "The IMD is not able to predict accurately if there will be rain in any region of the country and hence their predictions are not credible. It has to be kept in mind that India has a very long coastline and a large section of the population reside there. The lives of these people largely depend on the information provided by the IMD."

Adds Naqvi, "We rely on the IMD completely for any kind of information on the weather. If they spruce up their resources and upgrade the technology, then it will be better for news channels and also for people who look at the weather segment on a regular basis. Accurate forecasts would also help in avoiding crisis situations."

So what hinders accurate weather forecasting? BBC's Lane feels there are issues over accuracy of data, performance of equipment and cost of services.

Apart from the infrastructure, there are also problems that reporters face. Says Oke, "We're a very small team. When a major weather story also becomes a major news story, we are in great demand. Creating graphics, finding fresh video, making animations and providing fresh information and insight is tough, especially when there's only one weather anchor on duty."

Equipment problems or failure of data to arrive on time are also some of the main challenges that channels face.

Monies involved

News channels refused to divulge exact details on the kind of investments made in infrastructure and equipment for weather reporting, passing it off as "a considerable amount." Says Oke, "CNN makes a considerable investment to ensure that viewers are provided with the most accurate and latest information."

Innovations

BBC claims to have done a lot of innovat-ions in weather reporting. Since George Cowling of the Met office became the first person to present a weather bulletin on British television on 11 January 1954, the BBC’s Weather Centre has been constantly developing and improving both its broadcasting and computer technology and also received the Royal Television Society's award for Technical Innovation in operational systems in 1993.

As far as CNN is concerned, it launched the World Weather Center in September 1999. Prior to that the weather forecasts were recorded by US forecasters from CNN USA. Over the years, the network has developed a distinct style and their team includes anchors from the UK, Nicaragua, Spain, Argentina and Canada. Incorporation of videos, live events, interviews and even guests are brought on to the weather segment. This creates a live vibrant international weather service that is unique and innovative.

Indian news channels have a deal with the IMD for providing them with regular updates on weather information. But no financial details could be obtained. Shankar did not want to reveal the amount that Star News was paying to the IMD.

But what infrastructure do channels need to invest in? Says Saxena, "There are different kinds of software available in the market for weather forecast and it gets upgraded too. Three months ago, Zee News made considerable investment in new software, which provides visual relief to the viewers. Earlier there were two-dimensional maps on which anchors reported. But now we have three-dimensional maps wherein the camera travels through the areas in the map that are being spoken about. Packaging has also been changed, through which we show floating clouds and three-dimensional snow flakes. All this requires us to update our technology so as to stay ahead in the game."

BBC and the Met office have a long-standing relationship that goes back to over 60 years. Says Lane, "The BBC pays the Met office for its staff and for weather data, but that is a commercially sensitive figure. The BBC also provides the broadcasting infrastructure. The way the BBC makes weather forecasts is probably the most cost-effective example in the world, as a tiny team make a large amount of material thanks to a great deal of well-tried automation."

Branding Weather

Weather reporting offers branding opportunities, particularly from tourism boards. But there are no advertising breaks during the weather reports on all the news channels.

BBC World, for instance, has opened up the weather bulletins to sponsors, including the Maldives Tourist Board. And a promotional team from the broadcasters is in close touch with the sponsors. Says Oke, "However, advertisers are able to sponsor the weather. Our promotions department works with the weather department on this wherein we create a special forecast, which is slotted into the ad break, and is branded with the sponsors name on it."

Zee News recently got on board Idea Cellular to sponsor their weather forecast segment. Says Saxena, "Weather is sponsored on most news channels. On our channel, sponsors' visibility has increased lately as we now have a more visually appealing weather segment." Star News, Aaj Tak and the likes too have their weather segment sponsored.

Weather brings in viewers

Interest among viewers on weather news is high, as it affects their lives in some shape or form. Says Oke, "Weather is very important, although sometimes hardened news folks don't like to admit it! In the US there's research that proves that many viewers tune in just for the weather. The weather anchor is one of the most important and high profile members of the on-air news team."

In India, however, weather reporting is still in its embryonic stage. The way forward as far as this segment is concerned, is better support from the IMD for frequent and detailed information on weather, which should also be more region specific. "A move has to be made in providing the viewers with more than just temperature and rainfall forecasts. It has to focus on seasonal changes, has to be more people oriented and have a human touch to it. That really is the way forward for weather reporting in India," says Shankar.

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