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What is a teleprompter?

A teleprompter , also commonly referred to as a prompter or Autocue, is a device that allows a presenter to read a script whilst maintaining direct eye contact with the audience. Because the speaker does not need to look down to consult written notes, he/she appears to have memorized the speech or to be speaking spontaneously.

Teleprompters have traditionally been used in two main scenarios – by television presenters who want to be able to look straight in to the camera whilst reading the script, or by presidents, politicians and public speakers who want to be able to maintain natural eye contact with their audience rather than looking down at their notes. In more recent times, the use of teleprompters has widened to include any scripted video production, video bloggers, powerpoint presentations, as well as singers performing on stage as a way to help remember their lines.

The basic mechanics of a teleprompter haven’t changed since they were first invented, patented and then licensed by two groups of entrepreneurs in the 1950s – Autocue in the UK and QTV in the US – often referred to as the original Prompter People. The fundamental principle is that the text is displayed on a monitor that is mounted beneath a piece of reflective glass or beamsplitter. The glass is transparent on one side, allowing the camera to shoot straight through the back of it, or to appear invisible to an audience, and reflective on the other, so that the presenter can see the reflection of the script. The image must be reversed in the monitor so that when it’s reflected by the glass, it appears the right way round for the presenter to read.

Before the invention of computers, the scripts were hand written or typed on to scrolls of paper. The paper was then advanced by a teleprompter operator under a small CCTV type camera that sent the image of the script to the teleprompter monitor. The teleprompter monitors, much like TV monitors in those days, were extremely big and bulky.

These days the script is entered electronically in to a PC that runs special teleprompter software such as Autocue’s QMaster/QBox, QPro or QStart programmes. The PC then generates a video output of the script and sends it via composite video, SDI, or VGA to the teleprompter monitor. In more advance systems, the PC sends the script over IP to a separate scroll device called the QBox, which then in turn generates the video output for the monitor. This means that you can send and control a script from a PC in New York, over the internet, to a teleprompter that’s located in Tokyo!

The speed and direction of the script is either controlled by an operator or by the presenter themselves. The operator will listen carefully to the presenter to ensure that they follow at the same speed as the presenter is speaking, rather than forcing the presenter to speak at a certain speed. Alternatively, the presenter will scroll for themselves with a wireless hand control or a foot pedal.

Typically each teleprompter in a television studio will display the same script and all the presenters will see the same thing on each camera. However, there is now the capability for each presenter to control their own teleprompter individually, so they can scroll ahead to another section of the script whilst the other presenter is live on-air.

In recent years, with the invention of the iPad and other tablet devices, iPad teleprompters have become extremely popular as affordable, portable prompters. The script is loaded or typed in to a teleprompting app on the iPad, such as iAutocue, and the iPad is then mounted beneath the teleprompter glass in place of the teleprompter monitor. Because the script is already on the teleprompter monitor, there is no need for a separate PC or laptop and teleprompting software and everything is contained within the iPad itself. When shooting on location or quick simple pieces to camera, this greatly reduces the amount and complexity of equipment, making it extremely portable and affordable for schools and video bloggers.