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What is a Teleprompter?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 20 March 2014
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A teleprompter is an electronic device used primarily to display text and cues for on-air newscasters and other professional talents. Use of a teleprompter has largely replaced the need for handwritten cue cards or other off-camera prompts, although many studios still use cue cards as a back-up or emergency communication method. Early teleprompters were only used when the actor was required to speak directly to the camera, as in the case of live commercials.

The original idea for a teleprompter device came from a producer of the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, but it took a trio of investors to produce the very first TelePrompTer machines. This teleprompter device used paper scrolls to provide text and cues to the on-air talent, who were often at the mercy of reading speeds selected by the teleprompter operator or director. Another problem was a loss of direct eye contact as the performer read from an off-screen teleprompter.

During the early 1980s, a workable solution was found for many of the early teleprompter's inherent problems. A personal computer could be used to generate and scroll electronic text on a monitor. This monitor could be placed above or below the lens of a television camera without being visible to the home viewer. A special one-way mirror or a shrouded piece of window glass could be angled to reflect the monitor's text towards the on-air talent.

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Since this reflected text does not enter the camera's lens, only the on-air talent can view the contents. This feature of a modern teleprompter allows the performer to maintain apparent eye contact with the audience while reading a prepared script. The reading speed can be controlled by the camera operator, director or even the talent. A teleprompter helps create the illusion that a news anchor or politician is speaking spontaneously, when in fact the words have been carefully scripted before the broadcast.

One of the technical challenges involved with a teleprompter is the creation and display of text. Because the reflected image of the text is reversed, the original text display must also be reversed to compensate. This reversed text feature proved to be quite a challenge for programmers during the earliest days of word processing software. Text reversal continues to be a concern for teleprompter programmers, but there are recent innovations in the industry that may provide teleprompter text without such a need for alterations.

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