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Captions Courageous and Outrageous
June 2, 2017  | By Noel Holston  | 4 comments

The closed captioning of television programs is of course a great boon to the deaf and hearing impaired, a true godsend, right?

Well, not quite. Take it from a deaf viewer. There are times when no captions are better.

Times when the crawl on-screen should say "closed captioned . . . in Russian" or "closed captioned . . .in Arabic."

Times when the on-screen end credit should say the captioning is provided by a grant from the Daffy Duck Foundation or the Marx Brothers Trust or, on particularly frustrating, diabolical occasions, The Joker.

Times when you wonder if Ashton Kutcher and his prankster pals have maybe come out of retirement to punk you. 

Times when the choice is between turn off the "CC" or throw a shoe at your flat-screen.

I was covering television for The Orlando Sentinel in 1979 when the technology to create closed captions was introduced and the non-profit National Captioning Institute was launched. I went to a demonstration of the new, much-ballyhooed system at some point. I wrote a column about it for the paper, explained how, if you had the proper device wired into your TV set, you could call up the sort of subtitles you'd see at the screening in a theater of a foreign film.

Neither my home or office TV sets at the time had the new technology, however, and my ears still worked fine, so I never really got around to testing the system on an everyday basis. I just assumed it worked exactly as touted. 

Even years later, when I had a caption-capable TV set, the only time I ever turned them on was occasionally while watching Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. Sound quality on British imports like Upstairs, Downstairs and Pennies from Heaven was notoriously poor back then, and while the lords and ladies' stage diction rang clear enough, some of the servants' lower-class accents were so thick, they might as well have been speaking Scottish Gaelic. I used the captioning feature any time I encountered Dickens, Shakespeare or Bob Hoskins, and I was ever so grateful.      

As my ability to understand dialogue and narration got less reliable, starting about eight or nine years ago, I used captioning assistance more and more. When my ears failed catastrophically in 2010, I became totally dependent on the CC.  And that's when I discovered the little discussed but awful truth about closed captioning: Often as not, it sucks.         

That's not really surprising when you're talking about live programming – sporting events, news reports and such. The frequency of unusual names and technical terms is bound to result in errors, especially if the captions are being generated by voice-recognition software.    

But the quality of captions for filmed or videotaped programs can vary wildly as well. PBS, presumably because of its civic mission and its older-skewing audience, is the best and most consistent network for the deaf and hearing impaired, a club that includes an estimated 40 million or more Americans. Not only PBS's signature shows -- Masterpiece, Nature, NOVA -- boast exceptionally reliable closed captions, it's rare to encounter mangled captions, let alone gibberish, on any of its dramas, documentaries or investigative reports.

Among commercial networks, CBS is the most reliable, owing no doubt to awareness of an older core audience. 60 Minutes is meticulously captioned, right down to the promos and correspondent intros. And popular CBS entertainment series such as The Big Bang Theory, NCIS and Bull rarely have enough captioning glitches to be distracting.       

At the other end of the spectrum are ABC and Fox, both of which court younger audiences. The captioning of Modern Family, ABC's most acclaimed comedy and its most broadly appealing, is sometimes so incomprehensibly botched that it might as well have been translated by Russian hackers. I'm not talking about misspelled words or translating "cruel" as "gruel." I'm talking about captions that turn plain English into something that resembles the language of those drooling, green extraterrestrial visitors on The Simpsons.   

And speaking of America's beloved, never-ending animated satire, it's just one of the Fox shows whose captions are often an alphabetical train wreck. I think it's there that I first encountered the term “covfefe.”

At times, it seems as though most broadcasters -- and cable-casters -- either don't care all that much about deaf and hearing impaired viewers or don't comprehend the size of the hearing impaired audience that the gobbledygook captions drive away. No wonder many deaf people like me wait for the DVD boxes.

The DVD versions of caption-impaired hits invariably have accurate captions. Ironically, so do syndicated reruns. If you don't mind waiting six months to a year to see last night's episode, you'll be able to understand every line.

This article is adapted from Noel Holston's forthcoming book, Life After Deaf.

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I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up!
I'll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back later

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Jan 21, 2023   |  Reply
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Nov 1, 2019   |  Reply
Michele V
Having worked at the aforementioned National Captioning Institute some years ago, I find myself often defending the captions, particularly those in live broadcast. “Captions upon mute” has opened a whole new world to viewers who never knew what CC meant. I agree that voice recognition software is horrible, but the format of the show you are watching dictates the quality of the captions more often than not. Live news or sports? Live captions. Pre-recorded package? Transcribed about a half-hour before airing. Taped TV show? Probably captioned over a month ago using the video time code. Same with movies and commercials. Weather and satellite interference can severely garble CCs, and unless you know what type of captions they are -- rollup, embedded, or live -- most can't tell the difference between an actual mistake and a technical glitch. But if the captioner types [Gospel Song] while the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" plays, it's human error.
Jun 6, 2017   |  Reply
It's amazing: since 1979, we might have more captions, but since the introduction of voice recognition software, the quality of what is available seems to have plummeted. It's hard not to laugh at some of the stuff online out of context, but having a partially deaf son myself, it makes me furious!
I've written subtitles and closed captions for over seven years now, but it's only the last three I have really appreciated how much they matter and started my own company to hopefully encourage more to subtitle by offering traditional typed subtitles, always worked on by humans! http://www.capitalcaptions.com/services/subtitle-services/

Thanks for the blog on this currently two edged sword!
Jun 3, 2017   |  Reply
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