Was NFL Broadcaster John Madden the First to Use a Telestrator?

Former NFL coach and sportscaster John Madden is famous for many reasons. As head coach of the Oakland Raiders, he led his AFC team to a victory at the 1976 Super Bowl game against NFC champion Minnesota Vikings. Madden then went on to become famous as a color commentator, adding significant insight into players, coaching, and game technique between plays.

In 1988, the realistic namesake football video game gained cult-like status with gamers across the world. As a matter of fact, due to Madden’s insistence, the football video game series was innovative for its time — with realistic player features, sophisticated playbooks, player statistics, and, you guessed it, Madden-style voice commentary. However, John Madden made history long before the video game took over the world.

What is the history of the Telestrator?

A Telestrator is a device that allows the operator to freehand sketch on top of a moving video or still photographs. It is also referred to as a video marker and has found applications in weather reporting, conference room presentations, military training, and educational settings. Even medical professionals sometimes use a type of Telestrator when conferencing with other doctors or patients. The Telestrator eventually became a game-changer in the world of football broadcasting.

The Los Angeles auction house, Profiles in History, included the first and only hand-built Telestrator 100 Graphic Sensor Screen in their October 17-20, 2014, Hollywood Auction. The auction guide described the item as the most significant piece of broadcast technology ever created. 

The Telestrator was the brainchild of Leonard Reiffel, an American physicist, author, and educator in the late 1950s. He later marketed his invention to WBBM-TV weatherman John Coughlin to use it as part of his weather forecasts. From there, it was really the station’s sports anchor, Johnny Morris, who was the first to use the device for sports broadcasting.

John Madden makes history

What John Madden is responsible for is being the first American sports commentator to use the Telestrator. Madden used the device during the 1982 Super Bowl, and that was the first time football fans saw Super Bowl commentary with game-detail diagrams drawn on a screen as San Francisco beat Cincinnati. The device Madden used at that time was primitive compared to today’s Telestrator.

Today’s Telestrators are digital instead of analog. Now, sports fans expect sophisticated technology, and today’s Telestrators deliver it with extremely complex information in a very simple visual format, for both live and replay events. Never before could a sports fan get a combination of field replay video, commentator graphics, and computer analysis. The Telestrator makes it all possible!

John Madden pioneered Telestrator use for NFL games

John Madden was a stellar NFL coach and an ace football broadcaster who broke the mold with his Telestrator use.
John Madden (left) and Al Michaels. | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Now, more than 35 years after their debut, Telestrators are still used in sports broadcasting, most notably Monday Night Football games. The newer machines resemble a computer more than the first-generation machine John Madden used at the Super Bowl, but he deserves credit for the machine’s widespread use. After Madden used it in the 1982 Super Bowl, CBS ordered four of the Telestrators from Reiffel.

In 2004, Reiffel received an Emmy from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences for his invention. His mother coined the name “Telestrator” because she felt the name was catchier than Reiffel’s original name — a “superimposed dynamic television display system.” 

Today, computer-based Telestrators dominate the market. As for that original model that was put on the auction block, its price was set in the range of $12,000-$15,000. But no doubt, the Telestrator brought John Madden and football fans a great deal more than anyone expected.