After almost 90 years, the BBC is talking about putting its lucrative weather forecasting contract out to tender, possibly as early as this month (April).
The Met Office, run by the Ministry of Defence, has produced the Beeb’s forecasts since the radio broadcasts of the early 1920s, but in a recent BBC statement, the corporation said it has finally chosen to put the contract up for grabs in order to ensure value for money, saying that it is considering various options relating to provision of these services going forward. Interestingly for one of the world’s most quintessentially British brands, it is a meteorological service from the other side of the world that could soon be telling the Brits when to bring out their brollies and burst into their bikinis.
Metra is the global commercial arm of the Meteorological Service of New Zealand, headquartered in Wellington. It is believed to be the Met Office’s major rival for the contract. Metra has worked with the BBC since 2005, when its 3D map Weatherscape XT graphic system was introduced to the BBC’s television broadcasts. The maps were largely derided for virtually ignoring Scotland and for the user-unfriendly graphics making the UK appear even gloomier than usual. Metra’s controversial replacement of the traditional white fluffy cloud and yellow circle emblems with roving aerial views were billed by the BBC as the most important thing to happen to weather forecasting in 30 years.
“Metra is the main competitor. They are interesting in that they already have a contract with the BBC, so have an inside knowledge,” says Dr Liz Bentley at the Royal Meteorological Society. “It’s not unusual for national meteorological centres all around the world to provide forecasts for other countries,” she states of the possible outsourcing to a Kiwi company. The BBC’s concern about getting “value for money” comes after a series of blunders made by the Met Office – including a rained-off “barbecue summer” last year and one of the UK’s chilliest winters on record, which they billed as “mild”. Perhaps to rebuild its reputation, earlier this month the Met Office announced that from now on it would cease its quarterly, and most problematic, seasonal forecasts. So are they still hoping to secure the contract? “We’re working as part of the process over the next couple of months,” says a spokesman at the Met Office.
The problem is, if the Met Office goes, it’s possible its presenters will too. All of the 20-odd national weather television presenters based in White City are employees of the Met Office, not the BBC, and whichever external company comes in will have a tough job of providing as many individuals with good presentation skills and, crucially (this is the BBC) the same level of familiarity for viewers.
For this reason, it’s seen as almost impossible for the BBC to harness a service provider skilled enough, large enough, and institutional enough to rival the MOD-owned Met Office, despite recent negative publicity. “I don’t believe there is anybody who could take on all the services the Met Office provides – the public weather services, the warnings, the data, the people,” says Bentley. “A public weather service provider, like the Met Office, and a public broadcasting service like the BBC,” she continues, “the two almost have to go hand in hand.”