In need of prompting

Al Jazeera's Kamahl Santamaria looks back on the invention that has assisted many public speakers.

    This week, a man died in the United States at the age of 91. I'd never heard of him before, and yet his invention is arguably what keeps me in a job. 

    He was Hubert J. Schlafly, the creator of the teleprompter.

    If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch this.  It's how we explained it on-air on Al Jazeera English on April 27:

    So the story goes that Schlafly was approached by a soap opera actor who couldn't remember his lines and needed a solution. 

    Schlafly's idea was rudimentary to say the least – the script was printed on a scroll of paper, wound around a couple of mechanical cranks – but what it did was provide the right concept and blueprint for what we use now… a simple but ingenious invention.

    As you'll see from the picture above of one of our teleprompters – or autocue as we call it here at AJE – the monitor with the script on it is actually positioned flat, with the words printed in mirror-script. They reflect off a piece of slanted clear glass fitted to the front of the camera... which means the anchor can see the words without them being picked up by the camera itself (i.e. your view from home).

    (Forgive me if I'm explaining something rather simple here, but people have asked in the past exactly how it works!)

    In most cases the teleprompter is controlled by someone in the gallery, or control room. Though I do remember when I started out in television in New Zealand many years ago, it was me controlling the speed of the script with a small dial on the studio desk, at the same time as I read the news! Tricky, but ultimately you are in control of your own destiny.

    The reason I'm going through all this is because this piece of technology is almost singlehandedly what makes television news smooth and watchable.  

    Yes, you need a capable anchor, good script writers, plus the best pictures and graphics… but imagine a news anchor constantly looking up and down from his or her scripts.  It would be hard to watch, hence the power of the prompter.

    And it’s not just for newsreaders. The teleprompter is a powerful political tool, when used well.  

    For example, much is made of the smoothness of U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech delivery.  And yes he’s good… but he quite possibly owes a lot of that to his command over the teleprompter.

    Equally, much has been made of his prompter failures.

    This is President Obama without a prompter (apparently tired!): 

    And this is him getting lost on the prompter:

    As you see, even the slickest of operators can be flummoxed by technology!

    Which brings me perhaps to my most salient point.

    The role of the teleprompter in a modern television news environment is undeniable. I would go so far as to suggest it is an absolute necessity.

    But in the end, any news anchor at any news desk in any news studio anywhere in the world has got to be able to go it alone. Not only will there be times when the technology fails, there will also be occasions when you don’t have time to write up a full script, or indeed when the events on screen simply can’t be scripted.

    Much of what we saw happen in Egypt recently was so fast-moving and so unexpected, that we would be rolling for hours on end as the events unfolded before our eyes.  

    At that point, the machine inspired by Hubert J. Schlafly’s paper scroll all those years ago is pretty much redundant.

    And for a master class in how to cope under pressure with no scripts, go back to 1963 and the moment the world learned U.S. President John F. Kennedy had died.

    Enter CBS newsman Walter Cronkite.

    To me, that is still one of the most extraordinary live TV performances ever.

    And all without a teleprompter.

    As a news anchor I can only hope – if I ever find myself in such a position – to have the same poise and grace under pressure.

    In the meantime, here’s to you Hubert!


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