It began as a crazy idea, but suggested for the right reason.
As the story goes, legendary CBS producer and 60 MINUTES creator Don Hewitt suggested that Douglas Edwards, CBS’s first news anchor, learn braille so that he could “read” his script copy while still looking at the camera. Edwards wasn’t wild about that idea, so Hewitt came up with a Plan B: cue cards.
Hewitt’s idea was based on a simple, but important point: news viewers like eye contact from a news anchor. They don’t want to watch someone who looks down at their script all the time. Cue cards helped Edwards look towards the camera without looking down.
In the old days, prompters used a small black-and-white camera that was aimed at actual paper copies of the script that were taped together in long strips. The paper was wheeled beneath the camera on a conveyor belt, and as the camera photographed the script, it was projected onto the mirrors. If something went wrong and a producer had to suddenly drop a story or move it down later into the broadcast, the prompter operator had to feverishly untape the pages and shuffle things around, while simultaneously not losing his place with the spot where the anchor was reading live on the air.
As you can imagine, this created some hectic moments.
But computers have made things a whole lot easier. Now, the prompter monitor is generated electronically. When a producer makes a decision to move a story, they do so on a computer terminal, and the prompter is automatically updated.
There’s an interesting footnote to this story. A producer behind another legendary CBS show, I Love Lucy, claims credit for devising the original teleprompter system. But either way, Hewitt was clearly one of the first to propose a way to have a script in clear view near the cameras.
So thanks to this critical piece of equipment that can be found in almost every television studio, news anchors can look viewers “right in the eye” without having to memorize pages of scripts at a time. It’s yet another reason people who work in the news business continue to be impacted by Hewitt’s ideas.
By the way, here’s a look at our studio from our anchors’ perspective. Each camera is outfitted with a prompter so that no matter which camera is on the air at a given moment, the script is already there and waiting.