Unprompted: Remembering Jess 

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The death of television pitchman Jess Duboy earlier this month prompted many to consider his life, as is the case when someone of note goes to the happy hunting grounds. We weren"t close friends, but his influence lingers on me and those who followed in TV land. It was Jess who enabled me to look directly at you and read the news. Before Jess, and subsequently me, no newscaster in Richmond used a teleprompter.

When I arrived from Baltimore in 1978 we typed news on a manual typewriter, and then went to the studio with what we had typed. We read it, looking up at the camera as much as possible. Then one day I looked behind a curtain across the studio and discovered a teleprompter.

What’s this! A teleprompter just like the one we used in Baltimore. Does it work? Yes, when Jess is here. What do you mean when Jess is here? Well, it seems that Jess did his car commercials for all the world to see in the Channel 12 studio. The teleprompter was only for Jess, so that he could look viewers straight in the eye and assure them, “If this emblem is not on your car, you probably paid too much.”

After some pleading from me, the news director agreed to allow the new anchorman to read the news from a teleprompter. I was given permission to use the machine that until then had belonged to Jess. It came after some wrangling because the station had to pay a human being to run the thing. The attitude was that we never needed it before, so why do we need it now. Well, I argued, this is 1978. Things change. So the guy whose job it was to process our news film had a new duty: He ran the teleprompter.

Everything went well as long as the teleprompter operator paid attention. But he sometimes ran the thing too fast, or too slow — and sometimes if distracted, he just stopped. Mr. Anchorman then had to fumble with his scripts to rediscover where he was. A teleprompter can work against you if the operator isn’t up to speed. On one occasion, some years later, another teleprompter operator who had offered his resignation and was working his last day, thought it might be amusing to replace the next story with a Playboy centerfold that he happened to be reading at the time. I looked straight ahead and discovered a beautiful naked woman looking back at me. Can’t remember what happened next, but I can’t forget that moment. It’s very difficult to look at a nude photograph while talking about budgetary problems in Petersburg.

But progress has its moments. Not long after the introduction of the teleprompter, Channel 12 went on the air with the first radar, and other improvements came quickly after that. Other stations by then were also using teleprompters and coming up with innovations. Today, no one speaks on television without a teleprompter. The president looks directly at you and says whatever he says, looking at the script scrolling on a piece of plastic that’s seen only from his angle. The camera looking back at the president sees no script at all. That’s how the optics work. The scripts are generated electronically now so no clown is able to insert naked women into the State of the Union speech, though Donald Trump would probably like that too, assuming he doesn’t win.

Even most of the big-time television preachers are now using teleprompters. This enables them to look you directly in the eye while asking for money.

Television has many ways of making people appear better than they actually are. Commercials are prepared to make products better than they are. Jess was ahead of his time in Richmond when he said give me the words in front of my face and I will look directly through them so you can’t. It was the beginning of things to come.

Now we’re trained to believe someone if there is alleged eye contract. Yes, I will buy a mattress at 85 percent of its usual price if you look me in the eye and say it’s true. I will believe most anything I hear and see on television.

We are victims of progress. Salesmanship is the name of the game. No matter what you’re selling.

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