When equipping a studio, the prompting equipment can sometimes be seen as an accessory to be added on after the infrastructure is in place. But there is danger in that perception. While most prompting systems are well-understood, reliable and routinely used, wiser chiefs of operations understand that selecting best of breed is as applicable in this case as it is for a supposedly more mission-critical asset management or newsroom system.
Prompting is a crucial element to any production workflow, from news and sports to live entertainment shows. Unfortunately, in recent years, the prompting sector has been cheapened by low-quality products that are simply not up to the job and by companies that won't provide the security of service or ability to respond to client needs.
That's why broadcasters or systems integrators (SI) are advised to run a thorough assessment of products when they issue tenders for a prompting system. Prompting may be one of the most standard, reliable and commonplace pieces of a workflow, but that doesn't mean provision should be treated with complacency.
The following is intended as guidance to decision makers at a systems integrator or within a broadcaster's technology department, based on an initial brief of placing prompting within a workflow.
Keeping pace with news
For a newsroom environment, the most critical decision is based around the newsroom computer system (NRCS). A prompting system has to seamlessly interface with systems from AP, Avid, Octopus, Dalet and others.
Even if you have not chosen a newsroom vendor, it is important to ensure the prompting company is able to integrate with an NRCS and has a proven protocol. Given the fast-paced nature of news, a prompting software application has to perform a multitude of tasks and remain stable at all times.
A head of operations or procurement director might ask whether the prompting application can handle the download of as many as 500 stories with just 30 seconds to air, and start prompting on story one, while still downloading the remaining run-order. And what if story 3 changes? Will that change be reflected in the story while in the process of downloading the run-order?
A prompter needs to communicate with the NRCS so that when a producer makes a change to the script, this is immediately reflected on the prompting system. The ability to control the run-order and edit anywhere within the script, even when scrolling the on-air story and leaving the prompt output unaffected, adds resilience to the overall system.
In addition, teleprompting software can enable multitasking functions, including the ability to simultaneously prompt and edit, run multiple scripts, change the run-order, mix fonts and change the font size. But, the software needs to work without fear of interrupting the live transmission.
In the field
A prompting device is not just software for talent to scroll through prewritten scripts and talk to the camera in a studio. It is also an application increasingly used in the field. The prompting system is as routine a part of the presenter's toolkit as a smart phone or tablet
In the field, it could mean an independent prompting device but more likely a device linked to a broadcaster's gallery via satellite or broadband network, so that any changes either in studio or on location can be made, saved and reflected instantly across the whole system.
If that link is broken, there will have to be a manual download and input of script changes — which in a live environment can be critical. Imagine reporting on an election with results coming in minute-by-minute; giving that direction verbally to an anchor, no matter how experienced, opens up the broadcaster to embarrassing errors and backtracking.
An FTP connection allows data to be downloaded to the teleprompter, but in excessively busy network periods — given the nature of IP connections — this could be delayed. Ensure that the prompting application can take priority over the PC running the prompting application so that no other background applications hog the CPU speed.
Another critical requirement is whether the teleprompter is MOS-compliant. The MOS protocol allows for huge packets of information to be transferred to the prompter and can be used instead of an FTP connection constantly polling for new items and changes to the run-order. This allows for faster updates and changes.
With the ever-increasing pressures on budgets, a news operation often needs to change its workflow within a 24-hour period. During peak viewing times — breakfast, lunchtime and the evening shows — a majority of news programs will have a dedicated prompting operator. However, in interim bulletins and overnight shifts, the need to reduce cost means talent themselves are increasingly being tasked with the prompting operation. It is essential then that the system is not only easy to understand and work with, but that it can switch effortlessly between various production needs.
Not all news programs follow the standard sit-behind-a-desk approach. The anchor may be presenting from a virtual set, a standing position or — in the ultimate test of a presenting and prompting capability — walking and talking. The communication and control from all these potential elements needs to be designed into the workflow at the outset.
For flexibility, multiple controllers are available, including control by foot, voice-activated software to help pace the script, wireless hand controls or desktop control. For certain systems, each of the controllers can be connected by just a standard coax and without special cabling.
Even the biggest studio complexes should offer no issues to ease of use. Ask the vendor whether the system handles distances without loss or lag in control. Using tie lines and patch panels, you should be able to connect multiple controllers up to 400m away from the PC with no time delay.
Scalability is also a key factor to be considered, and your vendor can advise on whether it is possible to expand your system as requirements grow, with minimal installation and down time with simple plug-and-play compatibility.
The system should also be able to handle more than one presenter at a time, without the need to switch between devices.
Wireless prompting, optical scroll controls with no potentiometer, dual-color tally systems and other accessories that are tuned into the needs of the on-air talent and production team can provide depth to your investment.
Once you have installed and integrated the prompting application and decided on the workflow to be used, comes the next vital part: the prompter displays. These should offer all the features required for a professional broadcaster.
Studio camera manufacturers design their models with teleprompter systems in mind, but you need to consider whether the prompting hardware itself will work with the lens, camera and support configurations at the facility. Clearly, the prompter display needs to be bright and legible for the presenters to work, especially in sunlight.
There are other considerations, none individually critical, but when considered en masse can present an overwhelming case for building a decision. They include:
Power: Will I have enough power on my camera head to power the prompter?
Tally: How will the prompter display the camera tally for the presenter?
Time code displays: Will these seamlessly integrate with the prompter, without the need to run new cables and have your engineering workshops devise a way to mount them?
Camera numbering: Can this be added with any combination of on-air monitors or clocks and still not have to change your hardware? Some systems can, and others cannot.
Longevity: A prompter display that produces a high-contrast, bright picture, with minimal power consumption and little heat will deliver reliability and ROI.
Cost: Part of the answer lies in ROI, but price is rarely the best criteria for taking a judgment on live broadcast applications. For example, off-the-shelf monitors, computer screens or systems built with third-party graphics cards may be cheaper at face value, but in the end may prove a false economy. If the decision maker had to present the early evening news, would he or she choose unreliable off-the-shelf components or systems engineered with dedicated hardware and software?
Today, signals distributed around a TV station are going digital, if they are not already. The video drivers of a prompting system should provide SDI signals, allowing broadcasters to digitally distribute signals around the studio's matrix and analog where that is needed.
That means leading studio camera manufacturers no longer need to incorporate an analog prompt output on their products since the prompting vendor can provide it digitally rather than being forced to use analog video converters. Why install an analog router just to downconvert then upconvert a prompter signal?
It will only be a matter of time before the studio presentations linking stereo 3-D live sports or light entertainment events will also be required to be in 3-D. The trick is to find a practical means of securing a prompting monitor onto an already heavy and bulky 3-D studio camera rig. With copious testing with the right partner to gauge the right balance and position for a monitor in front of a 3-D rig, this can be achieved today.
There's no reason to let prompting become your system's Achilles heel. Procurement departments, heads of operations and SIs realize that the cheapest prompting options may not be the most suitable or reliable or able to deliver a better return on investment than competing products.
At their best, prompting systems simply fade into the background, able to survive the rigors of daily use so that the talent can concentrate on what they do best rather than worry about whether they will hit their marks.
Brian Larter is worldwide managing director at Autoscript.