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Few aspects of modern broadcast technology receive less attention, but have potentially as big an effect on the finished product, as teleprompting. We've all seen what can happen to normally smooth, articulate and polished presenters when there's a sudden issue with the prompter. All too often they get that “deer in the headlights” look, and the program they are presenting can start going off the rails.

The success of live programs, especially news, depends heavily on the personal relationship that a presenter builds up with the audience. A lot of that has to do with eye contact. Legendary presenters achieve the status of a trusted friend to millions of people, invited nightly into their homes, because people can relate to them. The best news readers succeed in establishing a level of credibility with the general public that politicians would kill for.

Without the prompter, successful presenters would have a much harder job projecting that sense of easy believability that wins hearts and minds and delivers to their channel greatly enhanced audiences and ratings. Yet to many, prompting isn't interesting, despite the fact that modern systems incorporate innovative technology.

Integration to studio systems

As with much of the best technology, some of the greatest ingenuity goes into making the prompting operation both simple and extremely reliable. That starts with the level of integration that exists between prompting systems and the editorial systems that virtually every broadcaster uses to create live programs — mainly in news and current affairs, but also including a wide variety of other programs that incorporate live presentation, such as reality TV.

Seamless interoperability is a significant requirement, and it is essential for prompting systems to develop close relationships with all of the leading newsroom companies. Key to this interoperability is not simply the downloading of scripts from the newsroom system to the prompter, but the ability to faithfully mirror last-minute additions and changes in real time. It is almost a rule in broadcast news that the more important a development or an update to an existing story, the less time you have to make the changes and get them on the air.

Therefore, it is important that when changes are made in the newsroom system (which is where not only writing of scripts and management of running orders but also control of the playout usually resides), the prompter is instantly updated without any ambiguity or hesitation. That is not as easy as it sounds, especially when an existing story has to be replaced or changed at the last minute, perhaps even when it has already begun to be broadcast. And, of course, the change has to happen in a way that is easy and logical for the presenter.

The prompter is an important part of the complex control system through which the newsroom system, sometimes in partnership with an external automation system, coordinates the timely, live playout of all elements of a program — video, audio and graphics. It is the presenter who ties all of the disparate elements of a broadcast together into a single integrated experience for the user, and the prompter is the tool that delivers the words to the presenter and, as a result, much of the meaning to the audience.

Presenter control

Once the story is on the air, the presenter needs a reliable and responsive way of scrolling that story in a way that matches his or her comfort and reading style. Many presenters self-operate with either a foot pedal or a hand control, although both of these devices have had to be developed to meet new demands with regards to where the presenter actually is presenting from. The old cliché of the presenter sitting behind a solid desk is now largely a thing of the past. In the search for innovative and interesting presentation styles, presenters now walk around the studio, perch on the end of desks, report from interesting and exotic locations, and do almost everything but sit behind a desk.

This demands inventiveness on the part of the prompter manufacturers. One innovation is a pedal control that can be comfortably used either sitting or standing. Another innovation is a wireless hand control that can be unobtrusively carried by the presenter and uses RF to provide a reliable link covering a distance of up to 100m. These controls can also incorporate a GPI interface to allow the presenter or the operator to trigger events directly, thus placing even more control (literally!) into the hands of the presenter.

Perhaps the most innovative way of controlling the speed of scroll is to use speech detection software that listens to the presenter, compares what is being said with the original script, and automatically adjusts the speed of scroll to precisely keep pace with the presenter's speed. An important part of this is the ability to abandon the script in order to ad-lib, and then pick the script back up again when needed.

Another critical prompting element that presenters need is a clear display. In this day and age, that means a screen capability that is not just bright and readable but that is compact, lightweight and combines low power consumption with low heat output to provide the most environmentally advantageous qualities.

As with some studio lighting manufacturers, prompting companies are embracing LED technology, which delivers benefits that far outweigh those of the fluorescent backlit monitors that have been the norm until recently. These benefits include superior light distribution, higher contrast levels and a better overall picture quality, but also significantly lower power consumption than existing TFT monitors. This is an important factor when the monitors are powered from the camera head rather than by a separate power supply. LED monitors also warm up to full brightness instantly, a useful attribute in a busy studio or on location.

Text is not all that the display can deliver. Some manufacturers incorporate clocks and cuing information, with the clock changing color from green to red when a suitable tally input is applied.

Of course, prompting is not confined to the studio, and the combination of a laptop computer and a small lightweight on-camera monitor means that prompting is available to presenters in all ENG situations with the same functionality as if they were in the studio.

Traditionally, studio prompting was delivered by an operator, and despite the availability of controls that can be used by the presenter to manage their own scrolling speed, “full-service” prompting is still offered by several companies.

Beyond broadcast

Where there is live presentation, there will always be prompting. The drive to make the prompting capability ever more reliable, easy to use and responsive to emerging needs continues. Some manufacturers are looking into the possibility of completely doing away with the conventional monitor and replacing it with a heads-up display, a logical idea when the size and shape of cameras, both in the studio and on location, is in rapid transition.

But in the final analysis, prompting is where technology and people come together to give a human voice to broadcasting.

Brian Larter is worldwide managing director for Autoscript.