Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On Telegraphs & TelePrpmpTers

On two technologies: Telegraphs & TelPrompTers

One of the public relations stunts that P.T. Barnum executed which was not a hoax was being the first private citizen to send a transatlantic telegram. In a move that would make the yet-uborn Marshall McLuhan proud, Barnum openly admitted that the content of this first telegraph was not important. The medium itself was the message. Barnum was reinventing himself and his personal brand within the early electronic/communication revolution. (coincidentally, Barnum had a 5th cousin who later got rich building telegraphs)

There is a fascinating new book about the collision of science, industrial technology and show business in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Madness in the Making

I am trying to either build or buy two TelePrompTer hoods for the student production studio at UDC. In an attempt to better train students for news and documentary productions, I believe that they will need to know both how to operate and read from prompters. Reading from prompter is both an art and a craft that many people simply can not master. It's an astonishing example of the metaphor that everyone who watches television assumes they could make it as well. TelePrompTers are a fantastic example of Heidegger's idea that the complexity and the assumptions of the technologies we use are self-concealing. (everyone can drive an [automatic transmission] car, but few could repair one, and fewer still could build one) A well-produced news piece, even one only made for podcasting or streaming,
will feature on-camera talent reading so naturally from the prompter, so that the technical aspect of the production is completely hidden from the viewer, and the 'personality' of the presenter or 'content' of the story covers the technical production.

But beyond this self-concealing aspect of prompters in television production, they also highlight the weird tension between written and spoken words. Anyone who has delivered a speech from TelePrompTer is first very aware of the uncanniness and awkwardness of the experience. After several takes, the performance (and it is a performance & vocal contrivance) becomes more natural. After a 16 week semester, students should be comfortable both reading and operating prompter. But this does not change the inscrutable connection/tension between reading words and speaking or hearing them. For the most simple example, turn on the English subtitles to a film you already know very well. Having the written text available to you changes your experience of listening to the performance of the film. This is only exacerbated when the words are scrolled, as they are in closed captioning, and brought to levels of near -confusion when you are the performer on camera who must read/perform the scrolling text. Yikes.

Reading is not performing. There are two skills necessary in using a prompter, one is the simple timing of the production, the other is the concealment of difficulty which the on-screen performance must include. The 'personality' or the 'content' becomes the distraction from the technical aspect of the media. Or, returning to the opening paragraph. The medium itself is the message, but it must conceal this fact from it's users and audience.

So, that is what I am looking to teach. No easy task.