jump to navigation

To teleprompt or not to teleprompt July 14, 2009

Posted by Fritz in Yachts and other things that float.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

An easy read.

I just read this article and started thinking about the state of the leadership in this country.


Our current President has received a lot of attention surrounding his use of the teleprompter.  The Right makes an issue of his seeming hopeless addiction to the device while the Left lamely dismisses any attempts to exploit the man’s self-acknowledged ‘need to read’.  During the recent  White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in May the President himself made comic reference to his teleprompter usage.  While every President since JFK has used a teleprompter, no other Chief Executive has so embraced the device or suffered so for it.

I graduated in 1982 with a degree in communication—Radio and Television major, from the University of Houston. One of the coolest things I recall from those early days was my fascination for the teleprompter. An ingenious device that allowed its reader to look directly at the camera while reading their script.360px-Teleprompter_schematic.svg

Schematic representation:

(1) Video camera (2) Shroud
(3) Video monitor (4) Two-way mirror
(5) Image from subject (6) Image from video monitor

The original prompter idea was born in the 1950’s. Fred Barton, Jr., Hubert J, (Hub) Schaflly and Irving Berlin Kahn devised the first device that projected an actor’s script onto a precisely angled plate of glass fixed in front of the camera’s lens. The words were typed onto a scroll of paper that was wound from one spool to another while being shot with a video camera. The image of the words were sent into a monitor facing up, directly below the lens of the camera. The angled glass above the monitor reflected the words scrolling from bottom to top. The speed of the scroll was controlled by a teleprompter operator who used a rheostat to adjust to the readers pace. This was essentially a rolling cue card directly in front of the lens.

In my senior year I was a member of Campus Workshop at U of H, a real world production class that produced a half hour, all-student created, television program.  The show aired Saturday mornings on KHTV, Channel 39.  The class was split between the two major sides in Broadcast television; Production and Performance. Students pursuing on-air careers filled our performance side and those seeking the production side made up the group that wrote, produced and directed the show’s content. One of my first tasks that semester was to operate the teleprompter as a member of the floor crew during our first taping. I can still remember how surprised I was to learn the secret of how news anchors looked so smart.

Claim to Fame:  CBS Sports great Jim Nantz was an alum of the performance class during my year.

My next gig in TV was a news internship at the local CBS affiliate, KHOU-TV in Houston —- the same station that made Dan Rather famous. His live broadcasts on the Galveston seawall during Hurricane Carla in 1961 elevated the little known newscaster to national prominence. Never before had America watched, live, the reporting of a major  natural disaster.  Dan’s luck got even better as the storm developed into the second worst hurricane to ever strike Texas to date. (The Galveston hurricane of 1911 ranks as the worst.)

I was four when Carla hit, living in Houston. I have no memory of the storm or Dan Rather’s broadcast and I could have never imagined I would return 21 years later to intern at the station that launched his national career.

My awe at interning at such a famous and prestigious TV station was dashed when I discovered the teleprompter system used in those revered studios was even less sophisticated than what we  had in college. Single sheet carbon copies were fed by an operator, one after another, onto a scrolling bed for the duration of the newscast.  God forbid they mixed up a page!

The First Personal Computer based Teleprompter, Compu=Prompt appeared in 1982. It was invented and marketed by Courtney M. Goodin & Laurence B. Abrams in Hollywood, California. This custom software and specially re-designed camera hardware ran on the ATARI 800 Personal Computer. Their company later became ProPrompt Inc., which is still providing teleprompting services. Other paper-based Teleprompting Companies Q-TV and Telescript followed suit and developed their own software several years later when the Commodore 64 the IBM PC evolved into computers with enough graphics power to provide the smooth scrolling text.

The advent of computer generated copy has allowed the writer to edit and update content with the immediacy our current lifestyle demands. A producer can write a script on his Blackberry in Bombay, text it to his studio in Stuttgart and almost instantly have his talking head making news—all in the blink of an eye.

So what’s the big deal with using a teleprompter?  Well….for politicians, it’s a freakin crutch. Wanting to look as Hollywood and as polished and as knowledgeable as possible, politicians have committed themselves to a device that allows them to articulate ideas and positions that they could never do extemporaneously. That’s because the art of the speech is dead. A good speaker like a good preacher can spill his words with nary so much as a note card. The idea and ideals underlying his words are so much the fabric of his person that he cannot help but to know the entire text in his mind and as such pontificate seamlessly from beginning to end. It is only when the words or ideals to be spoken are not the fabric of the speaker’s life that a crutch must be employed—like a teleprompter.

It would be so refreshing to see a politician speak without a script. I would like to see our President speak to us without a teleprompter. Tell me what you think, straight out of your head. If you believe it, if it is part of your fabric, you’ll do fine and I will get to hear your words, not someone else’s.

Dan Rather became famous because he didn’t use a teleprompter at the most important opportunity of his life.  He winged it and endeared himself to a national audience. America rewards the authentic, the genuine. So let’s turn off the teleprompters and start reading from the heart.

(For the record:  Several of the employees at KHOU-TV had scathing stories about the egocentric Dan Rather following his national debut. Douche bag, ass hole, and prick were frequent adjectives preceding his name in most conversations.)