- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

They are the unsung heroes of television newsrooms, and remaining unsung is key.

“You’re doing a perfect job when you’re invisible,” said Victor Murphy, 41, a production manager at WUSA-TV (Channel 9).

Their official titles differ, but teleprompter operators help Washington area TV anchors — and viewers — get their news every day.

“This is a job where you could do 40 things right, but if you do one thing wrong, you’re under a microscope,” said Wes Walker, an engineer at WRC-TV (Channel 4) who does some teleprompting.

“If I’m doing my job right, nobody knows I’m there,” said Judy Gough, 56, a production assistant who is one of Mr. Murphy’s teleprompter operators at the CBS affiliate.

Advanced technology is everywhere in TV newsrooms and control rooms. Digital video feeds have replaced tapes. Three robotic cameras require only one operator on the set.

But human beings still read the news along with the prompter operators, who spin the wheels of words from often harried control rooms.

“Rewards are slim for prompter operators, but you can get 2,000 percent of the blame” when things go wrong, said Winston Hylton, a 28-year-old associate producer at WJLA-TV (Channel 7), who mans the prompter occasionally and trains other ABC employees on the machine.

It takes about a week to train a teleprompter operator. In the Washington area, the average TV newsroom employs eight of them.

The operators said maintaining focus is the job’s top requirement, but that becomes difficult when they are trying to match the different cadences of the news anchors while also listening for commands from the director and producer as stories get lengthened or shortened. They are also often responsible for updating and running scripts in the 60- to 90-second breaks between live segments.

Most prompter operators use a computer mouse to get to the proper place in a script quickly, and then it’s mostly a matter of turning a wheel and reading along with the news anchor. All the information is integrated in a constantly updated digital system, but the job can be equally nerve-racking and tedious.

“You can be nonchalant just rolling this little knob, but you’re a lot more important than that,” said Mr. Hylton, who has been at WJLA for six years and also works as a cameraman and editor. “If you screw up, at the next commercial you hear, ‘Hey prompter. Hello? Keep up!’”

“If your attention deviates for one second, they’re reading and you’re not scrolling,” Ms. Gough said.

Mr. Walker, 51, has been with WRC for 29 years, and also serves as a cameraman, stage manager, set builder and lighting technician. He remembers the days when teleprompting meant taping pages together and pulling them under a camera so they could be projected onto a screen from which the anchors would read.

Through the years, the job’s problems and perks have remained the same, he said.

“I’m informed on every little thing that happens in this city,” said Mr. Walker. “But you can certainly get hypnotized. Words are going up but you’re not really reading. You can literally fall asleep with your eyes open.”

The anchors have backup paper copies in case the computer system goes down, but the prompter is the main source for news.

“Most anchors take them totally for granted until that night when things aren’t scrolling properly,” said Doug McKelway, co-anchor of “Good Morning Washington” and the noon news on WJLA.

Still, the on-air anchors are quick to insist that they do just fine on those rare occasions when the prompter goes down.

Susan Kidd, co-anchor of WRC’s 5 p.m. newscast, said anchors are not like their fictional movie colleague, Ron Burgundy, who was played by comedian Will Ferrell in the 2004 film “Anchorman.” Mr. Burgundy read everything that came up on the prompter, including insults aimed at the audience.

“Certainly it’s an important job,” Ms. Kidd said. “It allows more contact with the audience if we’re not having to look up and down at the script.”

Alison Starling, Mr. McKelway’s co-anchor, said the prompters who work the morning show deserve extra credit because they work a two-hour shift on air and their work day starts well before sunrise. But she acknowledged the thankless nature of the job.

“The best teleprompter operators are the ones you don’t notice,” Ms. Starling said.

Operators said the anchors sometimes make their jobs harder. “They ad lib a lot,” Mr. Walker said.

“Some you can’t scroll fast enough for,” Ms. Gough said. “Others are conversational and ad lib.”

Wendy Rieger, co-anchor of WRC’s 5 p.m. broadcast, said anchors had to roll their own scripts years ago and she expects the industry to go “back to the future.”

“They’re looking for any way to get rid of a human in this business,” she said.

But Mr. Hylton remained upbeat: “Anchors are human. They need a human to match that pacing.”

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