The Teleprompt Operator – Production or Technical?

The Prompt Operator

Teleprompt operators are generally the Cinderellas of the Television and Media Industry. In which other job would you finish a long day of intense concentration, and walk off into the sunset without a word of thanks and feel you had done a perfect day’s work. Because you’d done all the changes before they asked, the kit behaved perfectly, and the script was always in the right place at the right time, nobody even knew you were there. In spite of many years of promoting the status of the teleprompter operator, and this is yet another attempt, unfortunately they are still not recognised for what they are – true professionals with one of the most important jobs on the lot. You have the production structure of the studios from a runner to the producer and Director with all the elements in between on one side and the administration on top. You have the technical studio side with all the hardware and technicians through to transmission on the other. Both sets of personnel and facilities are unique to each section. There is an air gap between production and technical, between the presenter who is production and the camera which is technical. In prompted shows it is this gap that is bridged by the prompter and the prompt operator. The operator is, therefore, overlooked because there is confusion as to whether they are part of Production or a Technician, they have no fixed abode. But, whatever they are, this gap is most important, a textual error made here, or an equipment failure, would be noticed by millions of people, and worst of all, could make the presenter look like an idiot. That’s why you need a fully trained operator whose skill minimises the possibility of a disaster on-air.

The fact is that they are both. The professional prompt operator must have the personality and presence to work with Production, dealing with high profile people under pressure, the ability to communicate, spell, type, be computer literate, probably speak at least one additional language, possess the ability to concentrate for hour after hour, and, of course, preferably be endowed with ESP. They must also know about rigging a prompter, cabling, how to balance a camera, tie lines, rigging a computer, setting up a printer, fault finding etc…etc. Of course some of the problem of operator anonymity is due to the fact that these people are highly trained and it is because they operate so efficiently in the background that they are not noticed and, therefore, not enough credit is given to them. For instance how often does a teleprompt operator who is responsible for virtually every word spoken on a programme get a credit? Hardly ever. How often does a Caption Generator operator who has done a few name supers and a credits roller caption of fixed text get a credit? Almost always. Nothing against caption generator operators by the way, they have their own stresses and strains! Even runners sometimes get credits – but very rarely the prompt operator. Since the responsibilities of the teleprompt operator should be considered to follow the vision mixer and floor manager in the production pecking order – this is just plain unreasonable.

Of course there are areas where such highly trained personnel are not required. One such is news where the automated systems now used have reduced the prompt operator’s task to that of turning a knob to control the speed of the prompter text. Even if the prompt computer failed there’s not a lot they could do other than throw a switch to connect to a backup.