By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The day's news may soon rest in the hands -- and quite possibly on the feet -- of newscasters at WTTG, Channel 5, in Washington.
In a bid to save money, the station is planning to reassign the technicians who operate the electronic prompters that feed scripted news copy to the anchors while they're on the air. Instead, the station wants its anchors to do the job themselves.
WTTG, known as Fox5, intends to train its newscasters to operate prompters using a series of hand levers and foot pedals, all while they're reading the news as it scrolls by.
Some at the station worry that such a roll-your-own system could increase the potential for on-camera blunders, as anchors fumble for the right spot in their scripts. They also say that viewers may notice some awkward cranking and pumping beneath the anchor desk.
"Instead of orchestrating coverage, fact-checking, handling breaking news, paying attention to the [newscast], engaging reporters, questioning authorities, covering bad writing and technical mistakes, anchors will now spend most of their time" running the prompter, said one newsroom employee, who asked not to be identified because he's not authorized to discuss the change. "It's kind of like a literal one-man band -- singing, banging a drum, crashing cymbals, playing a trumpet and strumming a guitar . . . except we're not playing show tunes here."
Fox5 News Director Phil Metlin briefly described what the station had in mind in an internal memo last week. Metlin said reassignment of the prompter operators' work was part of a "corporate directive" (Fox5 is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.). Wrote Metlin to his staff: "We have purchased new equipment including foot pedals and hand controls. In the coming weeks, we will begin placing this equipment throughout our studios and we will begin a vigorous training program. Our goal is to use this equipment flawlessly." Metlin was not available for an interview.
WTTG General Manager Duffy Dyer said Tuesday that his station hasn't decided when it will implement the new system. But he said the anchor-controlled prompters tested well at Fox's station in Austin. "Some anchors and news talent prefer to operate it themselves because they can be in complete control of the speed and the pauses," Dyer said. "Maybe this will allow our talent to handle the prompter exactly as they want it."
TV stations in small cities often require news people to crank their own prompters, but the practice is largely unknown in major markets. Larger stations -- such as Fox5 -- often have fast-moving newscasts that contain a variety of live and taped elements, as well as live remote reports. As elements are added and subtracted throughout a broadcast, the prompter technician plays a pivotal if unseen role, moving the electronic script to the appropriate story.
Fox5 has an usually dynamic newscast, with anchors and reporters frequently moving around the set. One reporter at the station wondered how an anchor could move around and still manage to run his or her own prompter. "It could be comic, and it could be awful," he said.
As for potential glitches, Dyer said, "I'd be foolhardy to say that all the [prompter] errors will go away. But we intend to make this seamless to our viewers. It's up to us that, whatever system we use, that we make it reliable, efficient and produce the fewest mishaps on a daily basis."