Film and media professor Neta Alexander explores the paradoxes of the teleprompter.
The teleprompter is a technological paradox. Everyone knows that, when politicians make a speech, they are not reciting it from memory, but rather reading off a scrolling screen. And yet, the better a teleprompter does its job, the less aware we are of its existence.
“It’s a technology designed to be everywhere, and yet nowhere,” says Neta Alexander, assistant professor of film and media studies. “It creates the illusion that the speaker is actually able to memorize a talk — or else, that they are charismatic enough to give this wonderful speech without having to read it line by line.”
Alexander, who is also a scholar of science and technology studies, became intrigued by the uses and abuses of teleprompters when an artist friend, Tali Keren, staged a show in which participants were asked to use one to read aloud a speech by a televangelist. Keren asked her to help with research, but Alexander was surprised to find that, despite the ubiquity of the technology in the 21st century, scholars have written almost nothing about it. Even in academia, it seems, the technology is invisible. “It’s literally and metaphorically transparent,” says Alexander. “It’s a technology designed not to be seen.”
Alexander has now filled in that lacuna with “Paper, glass, algorithm: teleprompters and the invisibility of screens,” co-written with Keren and published last September in the Journal of Visual Culture. The paper explores how the devices became so widespread in media and politics, even as we only seem to notice them when they fail. “When a tool breaks down, that’s the moment of knowledge production,” says Alexander, who frequently looks at technology breakdowns in her research, exploring, for example, why technological failures such as buffering or planned obsolescence are often ignored or downplayed by both users and media scholars. “The more ubiquitous technology and computers become, the more likely they are to disconnect, buffer, and fail us in different ways,” she says. “What I bring to all of these technologies is a curiosity about when and where do these frictions occur, and why are we so quick to forgive our devices.”
The origins of teleprompters go back to 1948, when CBS engineer Hubert Schlafly collaborated with television actor Fred Barton to create a way to surreptitiously prompt actors filming a live daily soap opera by unreeling their lines on a roll of butcher paper offscreen. While those first script aids were positioned off to the side of the camera, the modern teleprompter was born when another engineer, Luther George Simjian, created a way to superimpose the words directly on the camera lens, allowing the performer to retain eye contact with the viewer. “That opened up the world of politics,” says Alexander, “because for politicians, the ability to create eye contact with the domestic viewer is crucial.”
She uses the term “tactile vision” to describe this phenomenon that allowed the presenter to virtually reach out and touch the audience through the camera. “The teleprompter became this device that transformed the eye into a hand,” she says. The new technology wasn’t without its hiccups, however. In 1952, presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower berated his teleprompter during a speech, yelling “Go ahead! Go ahead! Yah, damn it! I want him to move up” to the consternation of the national radio audience listening at home.
As the teleprompter became more sophisticated, it morphed first into a pair of glass screens on either side of the camera and eventually into a network of up to five different screens, so a presenter can roam the stage and see their words wherever they go. “Every other technology is becoming smaller and smaller,” Alexander notes, even while the teleprompter is expanding. “Ironically, the more screens you are using, the less likely the audience is to pay attention, because you are not looking at a specific direction.”
From the beginning, some critics have railed against the teleprompter as inauthentic. In 1955, U.S. Senator Richard Neuberger even tried to promote an amendment to the Communication Act to require it to be announced when a politician uses either a teleprompter or makeup. “The only legal way to use the teleprompter would be to tell your audience you were doing it, which, of course, takes away the selling point of the device,” Alexander says.
No one has more obsessively criticized the teleprompter than former President Donald Trump, who constantly noted that his predecessor, Barack Obama, and his 2016 election rival, Hillary Clinton, were wedded to the devices, implying that they were unable to think for themselves. On the eve of the election, he took his attacks a step further, by physically attacking a teleprompter during a campaign speech, knocking over one of the glass screens and gleefully saying, “I actually like my speech better without teleprompters.” The act fit with his populist persona, Alexander says. “It played into the anti-technology undertones of his campaign, basically telling middle-class Americans ‘machines will not replace you.’”
On the other hand, Alexander argues, a more serious critique can be leveled against the teleprompter for the way it exacerbates disparities among politicians and other public figures. Since those in power are more likely to have access to teleprompter technology, it allows them to come across as more polished and sophisticated to audiences, widening that gap between them and those in less powerful positions. “You are adding an extra technological layer of bias into a system of power that is already biased,” Alexander says.
More recent teleprompter technology takes advantage of speech algorithms that automatically scroll the text for the presenter, creating an even more seamless presentation. That technology, however, is trained on decades-old speech corpora, which are historically more likely to be white and male. “That means if you are a woman of color or a non-native speaker like me, then it won’t work as well for you,” says Alexander, who is originally from Israel. “That’s a real issue when you think of the importance of diversity within the political arena.”
At the very least, Alexander says, teleprompter technology needs to be further researched and explored, to bring it out of the shadows and make its implications more visible. While she and Keren wrote their paper before the pandemic, those consequences have become even more important in the age of Zoom and videoconferencing, when so many of us are speaking through our screens, making technology disparities even more apparent. “We are all sharing screens and reading things as we are talking to each other now,” says Alexander. “These questions are going to be increasingly relevant for years to come.”