Since taking on a part-time position as a video reporter at Automotive News I’ve found myself filling in every few weeks for the regular anchor of our daily afternoon newscast, AutoNews Now. I hadn’t anchored any sort of newscast since 1988 when I anchored Newsnight Update for awhile on CNN. If you’re not familiar with that show, that’s because it aired 1:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Eastern time and was aimed at west coast viewers and those in other time zones working off a hard night of drinking bad muscatel.
The absence of 29 years from the anchor desk was quite an awakening, especially when it comes to that thing called a teleprompter. Oh, I guess technically I’m supposed to spell it TelePrompTer since it’s a brand name that’s become generic like Kleenex for tissues.
My first anchor experience was in the late 1970’s at KGUN-TV in Tucson, Arizona where I’d occasionally handle “Good Morning Tucson,” the local cut-ins during “Good Morning America.” Back then the prompter was simply a little conveyer belt onto which the operator loaded the script pages end to end. The operator would then use a little thumbwheel to get the conveyer belt moving, passing each page under a small camera, which sent the image of the script to a monitor placed under the anchor’s camera lens, reflecting it onto a two-way mirror over the lens so the anchor could look directly into it and make people believe they either memorized the whole thing or made it up on the spot.
This simple technology worked for a long time, but had it’s limitations. At KGUN the prompter was located next to a door that led from the studio to the parking lot. Every time someone went in or out during a newscast, all the script pages would go flying off the belt and the poor operator was stuck trying to gather them up and place them back on the belt in the correct order. This almost never was successful causing the anchor to deliver such non sequiturs as “A plane crash near Phoenix today resulted in lower than expected attendance at the 4H Club’s bake sale. The city council voted unanimously to plead guilty to sexual harassment charges.”
By the time I anchored at CNN the technology had actually not changed one bit. The difference at CNN is, due to the nature of its 24-hour broadcast schedule, scripts were constantly being written and delivered to the prompter and the rest of the crew just moments before they were to be read.
One night the scripts were running particularly late and the production assistant charged with delivering the scripts was running like crazy and became completely unhinged. In her rush she simply tossed the pile of scripts to the prompter operator and, as you might expect, they immediately were shuffled out of order. All I could see from the anchor desk was a young person behind the prompter mouthing, “oh crap oh crap oh crap!” while the fallen pages remained on the ground.
I should interject at this point, anchors are also provided hard copies of scripts just in case there should be an unfortunate prompter problem. The trick is, turning the pages of your hard copy in sync with the prompter so, if needed, you can dive down to the hard copy and continue reading. It’s tougher than it looks and many anchors simply use their hard copies as placemats for the coffee and danish they bring on the set, just out of view.
Now fast forward to 2012. By then I was head of digital communications at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. A good part of my duties involved setting up a video operation at the automaker and that included having a small studio built for recording and transmitting executive interviews. The long time gap since my last studio experience became quickly apparent when the prompter was installed. I looked high and low but couldn’t find the conveyer belt/camera apparatus. When I asked someone about it, the much-younger person laughed at me as she said, “are you, like 100?” before explaining prompters had long before moved to the digital age where all you had to do was load a Word file of the script into a laptop that’s connected to the monitor/two-way mirror set up on the camera.
This worked very well except for when, in the spirit of teamwork, I ran the prompter for one of our Italian executives who needed to record a message totally in Spanish. Not being able to understand a word of the script I just kept moving the lines up at the executive’s pace. He finally stopped in frustration and said to me, in perfect English, “you suck!” Ah, the joys of multi-linguilism.
I retired from FCA at the end of July, 2016, but was offered the part-time job I have now at Automotive News, which I enjoy very much. Every so often, as I mentioned at the start, I fill in for our regular anchor. The first time he showed me the studio the issue of the prompter came up. He smiled as he handed me the thumb-operated controller and informed me there weren’t enough people on the team to have a prompter operator so anchors were on their own.
If you watch any of our newscasts, you’ll notice we keep one hand, the hand operating the prompter, out of view. I’ve gotten the hang of it pretty well. It just takes a little practice. It seems to be a problem for some of our viewers however, since they have no idea what’s going on under the table and it’s prompted a few to ask some inappropriate questions. Let’s just say my thumb’s pretty busy.