Creator of Teleprompt Dies; On-Air Mistakes Live On

Those of us working in television know that the teleprompter can be a very dangerous piece of kit.


It is not just fictional characters like Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy telling viewers in San Diego what to do with their evenings that cause trouble; problems can arise at any moment and only the very best line producers can stop mistakes being made.

Why do I tell you this? Well, I am afraid to report that the man who invented the teleprompter, Hubert 'Hub' Schlafly has died aged 91. Following a brief illness, Schlafly died at Stamford Hospital, Connecticut, on April 20 last week and was buried by his family in Greenwich on Tuesday.

Holding 16 separate patents including the technology that allows you to buy shows on cable, Schlafly won an Emmy for his work creating the teleprompter in 1999.

"Hub Schlafly was the cable industry's most innovative engineer and, at the same time, one of its ablest executives," Charles Dolan, chairman of Cablevision, said in an interview with the Press Association. "Whether you were his friend or competitor, he was always congenial and supportive and probably had more friends than anyone."

A common mistake to make while using a teleprompter is to read out information not meant for the viewer, but for the producers and directors.

Recently at CNBC in London one of our most respected anchors managed to read out a list of pictures used to illustrate a story on the non-farm payroll data.

“Call center workers, people working in sports shops and waitresses,” said the seasoned anchor man. “All people that will influence today’s all-important US jobs number,” was the recovery from the nimble-footed reporter, as viewers questioned the quality of writing on the show.

Without wanting to pick on any CNBC rival broadcasters, the list of major mistakes is long and illustrious.

My personal favorite is the normally world-class Jonathan Charles of the BBC World News. Introducing himself at the top of a show he forgot to pause when reporting the terrible story of an Austrian man who locked his family in a dungeon. Check out YouTube for the results which you shouldn’t laugh at but will.

A rival of Charles at Sky News got into trouble in 2009 when he managed to read out the production cues to leave the viewer wondering whether they should turn over rather than stay with the show through the adverts.

The sign of a good newscaster is their ability to deal with the loss of prompt. With directors and producers screaming in their ear that ‘prompt is down, prompt is down’ the newscaster needs to focus and then think of something to say that is relevant to what was being discussed only moments ago.

President Barack Obama, known as the first Teleprompting president, has struggled with this skill at times.