Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Stations Shift to Talent-Run Teleprompting

By Hillary Atkin

Stations following the credo of doing more with less are now moving toward talent-run teleprompters as a cost-cutting measure, either reassigning prompter operators to other news production tasks or cutting them completely.

As with any change or cutback in the news business, the move has been met in some quarters with resistance and controversy — especially in major markets, where news anchors have historically had large teams of production professionals taking care of the technical aspects of the newscasts.

As one unidentified newsroom employee put it in a recent Washington Post article about local Fox station WTTG-TV implementing anchor-run prompters: “It’s kind of like a literal one-man band — singing, banging a drum, crashing cymbals, playing a trumpet and strumming a guitar ... except we’re not playing show tunes here.”

Yet for some professionals in smaller markets who are used to more meager resources, the adjustment has been easy.

Loriana Hernandez, news anchor at Austin, Texas, Fox affiliate KTBC-TV, has found having the added chore of running her own teleprompter to be her preference. She’d had previous experience doing it when she worked at CNN and CNN en Espanol, but this time around it’s different.

Fernandez, co-anchor of the Fox O&O station’s 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. newscasts with Mike Warren, used to work with a hand-controlled device that she said she found restrictive. Now she and Warren — and the station’s other on-air talent — can operate the prompter from eight separate foot-pedal locations in the news studio.

Teleprompters — devices that project upwardly scrolling copy in front of a camera lens so that talent can read it without losing eye contact with the viewer — were invented in the mid-1950s and have been a crucial part of the television landscape ever since.

Fox stations have led the way toward self-prompting. Company executives say the switchover has gone smoothly not only in Austin, but at WOFL-TV in Orlando, Fla., where anchors have been scrolling their own prompters for several months now. At its affiliates in Tampa and Memphis, WTVT-TV and WHBQ-TV, one newscast at each station is currently using anchor-driven prompters.

Duffy Dyer, general manager of WTTG, the Washington Fox station from the Post article, said he is confident of the outcome, that the quality of the newscasts will not be affected, and that viewers won’t notice any change. “The feedback is very positive,” he said. “We have been meeting with anchors and reporters. I’d say that, to a person, everyone is looking at this as a positive move. Some are looking forward to learning a new skill and becoming more valuable to the company, and there are a fair amount of people who have done it in markets like Utica and Eureka.”

In the lead-up to the switchover, Dyer said station management is being very patient and making sure that all talent is comfortable with the process. “We’ve made it clear that we have a great news product because of their and management’s efforts, and we won’t do anything to put that at risk,” he said.

Previously, a mix of people from production assistants to the tape library manager was operating the teleprompter, and Dyer said none of them would be laid off.

WTTG was scheduled to install the new prompters in mid-November, and then train about 12 on-air talent who will be using them. The plan was to begin anchor-controlled teleprompting on the weekend shows before rolling it out on the weekdays.

According to those who have already taken the plunge, the actual training is more a matter of becoming at ease than any sort of steep learning curve. “We got together with the morning and evening teams, got the system in place, ran rehearsals and let them get acclimated with how the functions worked,” said Jeff Zeller, vice president and news director of Fox O&O WOFL in Orlando. “We did rehearsals for about a week and then let them at it.”

KTBC’s Hernandez said it was a breeze. “There’s nothing to train,” she said. “You run your own pedal, and are in charge of your pacing and speed. If there is a situation where I need to ad lib, I do. I didn’t feel any training was necessary,” Hernandez said, and gave this advice, “I would say, ‘Plug it in, let them play with it for 10 minutes and let them go.’ ”

What happens when the newscast producer makes fast page kills or floats a story at the last second, as regularly occurs in a fast-paced broadcast? The anchors do not have to deal with pulling pages from the prompter at the last moment. The floor director or someone in the control booth makes those adjustments as the anchor continues reading the copy.

Mistakes can happen, whether there’s a separate operator or when the prompter is anchor-run. “In a typical newscast it’s forced us all to communicate better. I can tell you there’s been no disasters,” said Hernandez. “We have our little system. It’s like a dance.”

“Honestly, it’s been a very smooth transition,” Zeller said. “In practice runs, we made sure they’re not running it too fast. As far as on-air, in the end, it’s a teleprompter, being operated by someone differently than it was before.”

The original prompter manufacturer, which spelled its name TelePrompTer, no longer exists, but there are at least a half-dozen vendors that manufacture prompting products.

AutoScript Inc. is one of the industry leaders, with competitors that include QTV, Telescript and Listec. Typical software/hardware packages run from $1,000 to $7,000, in addition to the cost of outfitting each camera with a prompter, which runs between $2,000 and $8,000.

For most talent running their own prompter, the most desired setup is the foot pedal out of camera view. But there are also wireless hand controllers, called “rats,” with forward and backward buttons.

Seeing a trend over the last year or two of talent doing their own prompting, especially in smaller markets, AutoScript developed a new product. “It’s called Magno Foot Control with Deskpad,” said Gordon Tubbs, vice president of AutoScript. “It uses magnetic encoder technology and sits under the desk. If talent is standing, it’s out of shot on the floor. The farther they push, the faster it moves, like a gas pedal. That is probably the most common way of talent prompting themselves. That’s typically what they’re buying.”

At WTTG, the new system will be a combination of foot pedals and wireless hand devices.
“The system we’re going to be using gives talent the ability to advance to the next story. That’s the kind of feature that will make it virtually invisible to the viewer,” said Dyer. “Individuals will have preferences for foot pedals or wireless hand devices. Situations will call for one over the other. We don’t want to push a square peg in a round hole, and will make sure people can make decisions to do it the best way through a combination of devices in various positions.”

For Hernandez, who said she likes to wear 4-inch heels, her most comfortable position is kicking her shoes off before scrolling away on the prompter foot pedal.

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