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Stormy weather over RTE

Professional weather forecasters from the Met Office have been axed by RTE in favour of younger less qualified presenters. At the end of the first week of the new service, Tom O'Dea assesses their performance

As the new weather presenters come to the end of the first week in which they have replaced the professional meteorologists, the public has had an opportunity to judge them. RTE had claimed that the Met officers were poor communicators and that was why they wanted to replace them.

But reaction from the public so far suggests that viewers are unimpressed with the trumpeted new team.

Viewers may not have noticed it, but the replacement weather act is pre-recorded, whereas the Met people did their high-wire act in front of a live camera. In spite of this, few people this week felt that the new team were better at communicating the weather forecast.

In fact, if anything the lack of the ``live'' feel to the forecast made the presentation less involving than it had been before. Prerecording seems to have robbed it of its spark.

RTE has laid much emphasis on presentational style, but the new lot seem to be all presentation and little style, and no better communicators than those they replaced. The pre-recording of the show suggests a lack of confidence. If they are such good communicators, why the need to prerecord the forecasts?

Of even greater concern to most viewers is the feeling they are getting that the new presenters simply don't know what they are talking about. If anything, they look like good students who have learned to parrot the right answer without quite understanding what it means.

No matter what name RTE gives to the new regime, the Met people see it as nothing more than a jazzing up and a dumbing down of the broadcast weather service. And so do the many members of the public this week who rang Met Eireann making it clear that they are dissatisfied with the situation in which a public service is now angled towards presentation rather that information.

The Met people all have a primary science degree, and most have a post-graduate degree. Upon entry to the service, they are trained as meteorologists, so that, unlike the new crop, they knew what they were talking about in front of a television camera.

What bothers the public is that the replacement presenters who, RTE assures us, are graduates know nothing whatever about meteorology. They may have a science degree but there is a world of difference between that and being a qualified and experienced Met person.

Behind the scenes (and the weather maps) this week and over recent weeks Met Eireann has been under heavy pressure from RTE to ensure that its officers do not air their grievances in public. But this injunction is being largely ignored by the officers themselves.

Last spring, Evelyn Cusack spoke on radio to Marian Finucane about the proposed changes. It was not expected that she would come right out, as she did, and say that she and her colleagues were in total disagreement with the new system, and her remarks at that time threw RTE into a tizzy.

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Andrew Byrnes, RTE's Head of Scheduling, rang the Met office and demanded that Miss Cusack be taken off broadcast weather duties immediately, and said that if she turned up at RTE she would be barred at the door. She was not reprimanded by her Met superiors; but RTE chickened out of its threat to ban her.

At the end of last week, when it came to the final weather report to be presented by a Met person, Miss Cusack was instructed not to reveal to the public that it was the final report. RTE's Presentation Department was instructed to cut her off the air if she violated the injunction. But RTE chickened out again.

Evelyn Cusack ignored what her colleagues are now calling ``the bully-boy tactics of RTE.'' As many viewers saw, she bade a dignified farewell to the public on behalf of herself and her colleagues.

There was no bitterness in her goodbye, even though RTE had even gone back on the idea that it floated last spring that both Gerry Fleming and Evelyn Cusack would be kept on as part of the new regime.

The whole argument revolves around whether a state broadcaster like RTE should present the weather as some kind of show, like some American TV stations and TV3, or like the BBC who use Met professionals.

The idea of replacing the Met people by so-called ``professional presenters'' came from Joe Mulholland, Managing Director of RTE, whose decision is now openly questioned by Met officers. The new employees come across as ``inept and unprofessional,'' the Met people told me this week.

Mulholland had professional meteorologists presenting the weather forecast, they argue, and he got rid of them ``for the sake of glamorising the weather, which is a public service, not entertainment.''

``The new move is a step backwards,'' the Met people say. ``We had developed broadcasting skills over the years; we had years of experience; we had campaigned for ages for improvements in the the broadcast service; but when they came we never had a chance to use them.''

``RTE has taken a step backwards,'' a forecaster told me. ``It is a professional insult to us. It is galling for us to see persons with no background or training attempting to do the forecast, which we always presented live, but it is now pre-recorded. We could make last-minute adjustments, because we were live, but this is no longer possible.''

The Met forecasters are also angry at the implied suggestion by RTE that they were less visually presentable than they might have been. Within RTE itself, a senior editorial person commented to me that ``those we have employed to replace the Met people are not babes by any means,'' and added, ``RTE has screwed up somehow.''

Another source of anger in the Met Office is the fact that RTE scheduler Andrew Byrnes has appointed as his assistant Craig Austin, formerly of one of the regional British channels. With no qualifications in meteorology, he is now coaching the new weather presenters.

Telephone callers to the Met Office are reacting adversely to the the new regime, and spotting its flaws. ``The new people are just mouthing the forecast,'' they argue, ``and it is obvious that they have just learned it off by heart, with no feeling whatever for what they are saying.'' In addition, they are noticing that the number of forecasts per day has dropped, and that the length of forecast has been shortened.

The Met people are considering taking a case against RTE on the grounds of ageism, but nothing has been decided yet. RTE is saying that the new jobs were advertised, and that it was open to Met officers to apply, but those in the know are taking this with a pinch of salt. RTE wanted the MET people out, and it got them out.

Joe Mulholland was so determined to change the appearance of the forecasts that, once, when he was on holiday and he heard that News wanted Met people to do the weather on the proposed breakfast show, he rang RTE, incensed, blocked the proposal, and insisted that RTE personnel did the forecast.

Among those whom RTE originally wanted to keep on were Evelyn Cusack and Gerald Fleming, paying Mr Fleming his Met salary of £50,000 a year. ``But it was never put to me in quite that way,'' Mr Fleming says. The arrangement was that RTE would have kept him for at least a couple of years.

Loyalty to his fellow officers was one of the reasons Mr Fleming turned down this offer. He wrote to RTE, making certain suggestions, such as more training for presenters, adding that RTE's response would colour his reaction to any offer made to him.

``I got no direct response,'' says Mr Fleming, ``but the actions they were taking around me led me to believe that they were not going to go this road.''

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