Saturday, December 9, 2017

Weathermen, You Clownin’

Hurricane Florence in about to make ground fall and as I watch Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel and just about every other recognizable network reporter beginning to get blown around, I'm reposting a discussion my students at Hunter initiated in 2017. 

Originally posted 12/9/17   Reposted 9/13/18

This Blog Was Written By 
John Darabos 

Professor Zarcadoolas posed a question asking why television weather reporters go out into the thick of dangerous storms. She had a very reasonable point suggesting there shouldn’t be a problem having mounted cameras to show the activity of the storm. With such technology available to us, why are weather reporters going out into these storms and why are the television networks compelled to put those reporters in hazardous situations when it appears it may be unnecessary?

This is a storm chaser named Juston Drake. The picture is take from his self-recorded footage from Hurricane Irma. Even though he is not a weatherman in the sense of Willard Scott his footage did air on NBC. There is a youtube video from NBC News at Drake is part of a fantastic website at and he can  be followed on twitter at @JustonStrmRider.

I did a bit of light research on the origins of the television weather reporter and came across some interesting information, defiantly not telling the definitive story, but still bringing me to a speculative inference I think is worth putting out there (also linking to language).

According to Tom Moore, TV weatherman for thirty years on The Weather Channel, most early television meteorologists of the 1950s had professional backgrounds from the military or as college professors. This military connection makes sense to me, consider that was post World War II, we do recall a moment of the war as “storming” the beaches at Normandy. Moore says the station directors felt these meteorologists made weather segments too dull. 

Consider the communication style, in general, of the military. I would characterize most military communication to disseminate information in a style designed to be direct, effective, and efficient. Now consider this military style of communication added with the communication style of a scientist. I am suggesting, even though scientific method is extremely useful, the scientific method is boring. 

We have now built a character to tell us about the weather who approaches such a task with the precision and efficiency of a military operation combined with the rote mechanicalness of the scientific method. I would imagine a 1950s college professor would manage the classroom in a similar fashion. How many minutes of that would you like to sit through? Nothing about our generic 1950s ex-military meteorologist screams entertainment. There would be no use of dramatic adjectives or outlandish physical displays to accent the language describing the weather because it just doesn’t fit the style of people in the community of meteorologists of the 1950s.

Toward the end of the 1950s, stations began to add to the weather forecast to make it more entertaining. Those additions included cartoon characters, very famous characters were Wooly Lamb and Gusty. Cartoons are generally silly things meant for humorous entertainment, which makes very interesting the evolution of the weatherman as seen through these first cartoon characters.

Enter Willard Scott. Willard Scott is a famous television personality from the 1950s, he is known for being on the Today Show, being Bozo the Clown, and was the original clown mascot for the fast food chain McDonalds as Ronald McDonald. 

The image is taken from a 1986 forecast given by Scott on NBC
It's a short video at the end he quickly makes note of his "act" as a weatherman which I think provides merit to my topic.

Willard Scott was very successful as a television weatherman by bringing his clown act to the weather broadcast. Willard Scott and his weather broadcasts were a novelty but quickly became parodied by other stations all over the country. People tuned in to a more entertaining personality delivering them the weather.

The television stations, through Willard Scott’s example, built somewhat of an architype for the weatherman. This architype mimicked the clown, a comical joker using exaggerated antics to entertain others. In the name of television ratings the purpose of the weather broadcast was no longer simply to deliver a report about the weather but to perform the weather report. 

To tie this to linguistics, best I can, why didn’t the original format of weather reporting work? Certainly the original meteorologists of the 1950s were qualified to analyze and report the weather, and certainly their ability to communicate was sufficient to the point they could educate in colleges and perform the duties required of our military. However their style of communication wasn’t sufficient to the television audience they were tasked with reaching. Style of communication would have a wide range of implications from particular word choice, to how that choice resonated with the target audience, and the effect those decisions on communication had on the actions taken by those who received it.

If there is a serious weather storm approaching what bigger stage is there to send our clown to? 

The consideration is not, “this place is dangerous and people should be informed to evacuate”, the consideration is, “send the clown!” I am partially suggesting this is about humor, but there is also the observation our professor posed in her own post:

“Has our emersion in reality TV raised the bar so high that we’re no longer engaged enough nor satisfied enough until the weatherman is torn limb from limb as we gaze snacking at our viewing devices -  our own private Roman Collosseums?”

Within danger there is the primal element required for entertainment. Our clown does so with a humorous foolishness that keeps us on the edge of elation while not quite crossing that line into a morbid reality. College professors or military personnel would not typically be considered to perform in this way, and this may be due to the type of communication style required of his/her discipline. However, the clown, can be equally qualified to disseminate this information, but have a style of communication that is bettered tailored for the realm of television. I think this raises an important note on the role language plays in our expectations on the actions and behaviors of others.

Moore, T., Haby, J. A Brief History of Broadcast Meteorology: From the Past to the Future. iWeathernet. March 26, 2017

Laskin, David. Television A Change in the Weather. NY Times, Arts Section. February 18, 2017.

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