A rising chorus for captioned TV shows


Answering a question by "CBS Morning News" anchor Harry Smith about women in politics, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared, "I regard myself as being able to hold my own."

Few familiar with Ms. Thatcher's steely resolve were puzzled by this response. But for the deaf or hard of hearing, the closed-caption, written words on the screen had the so-called Iron Lady saying something completely baffling: "I regard myself as being elder of my home."

For those watching CNN's coverage of the siege of the Russian Parliament, knowing President Boris Yeltsin's whereabouts depended on one's ability to hear -- or to guess.

According to correspondent Walter Rogers' spoken words, Mr. Yeltsin was in the Kremlin.

But, according to the on-screen caption, he was in a heretofore unknown Russian building called the "Chrem Lynn."

Deciphering closed-caption names and phrases often challenges the imagination. Try these: "groble warming," "Gren Itch Village," "launger rey," "grassy nole," "call dron boiling" and "Mare Len Monroe."

How about: "steal mate" (stalemate), "minimum straif burden" (administrative burden), "Scottish retchman" (regiment), "qun tri" (country), "percent of innocence" (presumption of innocence) and "garib tee" (guarantee). CNN once had President Clinton sending six "distrairs" (destroyers) to Haiti.

While TV closed-captioning has improved since its introduction in 1980, these glaring errors, seen largely on live shows, indicate it has a long way to go. Misspelled words or butchered phrases often destroy or distort the meaning of what's said.

Angry at mistakes

As funny as mistakes might seem to those who can hear, they anger the deaf and the hard of hearing. "I want the real spelling, not the phonetic spelling," says Frank Sullivan, 74, of Gaithersburg, former president of the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf, a trade association based in Mount Prospect, Ill.

Mr. Sullivan, who has been deaf since he was 10, says accuracy is "important to deaf people. Deaf people have a good education. They know the words. They like to see the words spelled right."

In addition, deaf people aren't always aware when a mangled syntax or non sequitur is the fault of the speaker or the captioner, as in the example with Margaret Thatcher.

In the quest for accuracy, the 14 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans may get some support from those who hear well because of a new federal law that expands the availability of closed-captioning.

As of last July 1, every new TV set 13 inches or larger sold in the United States must have a built-in, closed-caption decoder. Those decoders are helping many discover closed-captioning is not just for the deaf.

Just as captioning opened up a new world for the deaf and hard of hearing when it was introduced, it is opening up a new world for people who can hear. It is increasingly used by immigrants seeking to learn English and by those who can hear but prefer lowering the sound.

Captioning brings understanding to pictures over the din and confusion of public places such as bars and airports. Some believe it could lead to a new kind of home TV viewing, in which people keep the sound down until captioning alerts them to something they want to hear.

"We estimate that this year alone, some 8 million to 10 million households all of a sudden will be able to switch on captioning with their remote controls," says Donald Thieme, a spokesman for the National Captioning Institute, a non-profit firm that handles captions for home videos and for shows, such as ABC's "Good Morning America" and "World News Tonight." The company claims it has 80 percent of the national-captioning market.

Forty percent of the people who bought the institute's special captioning decoder, a black box that sits on top of the TV set, have no hearing problem but buy the device to learn English, he says.

On recorded TV shows, such as sitcoms or dramas, captions are accurate and perfect for an English lesson, as the words appear on the screen almost at the same time they're spoken. But it is time-consuming to get it right. Captioning a one-hour program can take 17 1/2 hours of work by a captioner, plus editing time. The charge to a client, such as a network, is $1,500.

Greater demand for captions

Not all TV programs have captions, and none is required to, but the demand for captioned programs appears to be rising. Most major network entertainment and news shows include closed-captioning.

Harvey Goodstein, a professor at Washington's Gallaudet University, a national college for the deaf, says the number of captioned programs will grow as new TV sets with the built-in decoders replace models without them.

"We are still hungry and surely want to see the day when all programs are captioned," says Mr. Goodstein, a captioning activist who has been deaf since birth. "According to one study, only about 5 percent of cable television programs are captioned. It certainly has been a large rip-off for deaf people, who have to pay a full price for many non-captioned shows. We have been subsidizing cable TV for the benefit of hearing viewers."

The boom in captioning has spawned a number of companies seeking to cash in. Toby Silver, a Maryland activist for expanded captioning who has been deaf since birth, says these "mom and pop" firms present quality problems.

It is these firms, Mr. Thieme says, that are making so many errors and giving captioning a bad name.

Not altogether. Some of the errors seen recently have appeared on major network shows that hire more reputable firms. In a CBS series on prostate problems, for example, "urination" came out "in your nation."

Creating a standard

Ms. Silver says she favors certification of caption writers to raise standards and reduce mistakes.

At NCI's captioning nerve center, two captioners, both former court reporters with additional training to handle live captioning, sit in front of TV sets, using a stenographic keyboard linked to a computer. Software converts the phonetic shorthand into English captions, which are sent over telephone lines to the broadcaster and then over the air.

Good live captioners are able to type 185 to 240 words a minute using this keyboard. Much of their day is spent practicing and building their computer dictionaries of difficult names, words and phrases.

And as talk grows of cable TV systems with 500 channels, broadcasters may have to take steps to make captioning available as political pressure for it grows.

Mr. Goodstein, chairman of the telecommunications committee of the National Association of the Deaf, says as federal officials discuss the directions an information superhighway might take, deaf people want to make sure they aren't left behind.

For each audio output in this highway of electronic linkages to commerce and education, he says, accurate captioning should be provided.

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