Read any good TV programs lately? For most people, "watching television" is really a package of sights and sounds. But millions of deaf viewers can only watch the action and often miss the storyline. Those who have a TeleCaption Adapter, however, can read the audio portion of a show transposed intsubtitles across the bottom of their screen.
In March, the nonprofit National Captioning Institute, located here, marked five years of helping the hearing impaired -- both 14 million classified as hard-of-hearing and 2 million who are profoundly deaf -- cross "the glass wall" between themselves and the hearing world. During that time, the response to NCI's work has been both grateful and touching:
". . . You're saving my sanity and probably my life . . . I was a teacher of languages, English, French and Latin, and a lover of all forms of communications. I've been totally deaf for a year . . . I get through the day because I know that for a little while at night I can watch TV and read your captions and forget there's glass wall between me and the world."
And another: "Too often the deaf are thrust out of the hearing world and have no choice except to socialize only with other deaf. But because of the captioning on the television, the barriers that separate the hearing and deaf worlds are broken down. Captioning gives us a common activity that hearing and deaf can do together."
At NCI's headquarters on the 15th floor of Skyline Towers in Falls Church, about 90 people work to make closed-captioning a reality. Besides marketing, technological/engineering, consumer and public affairs personnel, there is an elite and dedicated crew of captioners and editors who do all of NCI's live captioning. They have captioned presidential speeches, political debates and election coverage, Monday Night Football, three Super Bowls, the 1984 Olympics and, last Sunday, the Emmy Awards.
Other highly-skilled captioners and editors provide subtitles for pre-recorded programs for all broadcast networks, cable channels (including 52 previously unseen episodes of "The Honeymooners" beginning this month on Showtime), home videos and some of the 300 commercials whose sponsors know that deaf viewers are likely to buy the products they learn about in closed-captioned ads. This year NCI will produce about 3,600 hours of closed-captioned programming, both live and pre- recorded. In The Washington Post's TV Week, captioned programs carry a (CC); some other publications use NCI's trademark, which resembles a television screen with a tail, or a large stylized quotation mark.
All of NCI's captioners are courtroom reporters with at least four years of experience using a courtroom stenograph machine -- and they still refer to themselves as "court reporters." Tammie Shedd, one of NCI's first captioners and now supervisor of a cadre of nine, says that 95 percent of those who set out to become court reporters do not make the grade; of the court reporters who apply to NCI, only 1 in 10 gets the job. Four of NCI's present captioners came from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, a job that Karen Sachia described as "the hardest place I've ever worked." But working at NCI is no lark either. Sachia and Shedd estimate that one hour of live captioning for NCI is as stressful as day's work as a court reporter, even at D.C. Superior.
The captioners' work goes out live to thousands of subscribers, errors -- if any -- and all. Unlike advance programs, where the captioner has time to match and correct captions from separate audio and video tapes, those who create live captions have no copy to look at and no way to check the captions for errors before they go on the air. If the captioner hears a word incorrectly, hits a wrong key or uses a shorthand notation that the computer does not recognize, there will be an error.
But the viewers are forgiving:
"It made me cry to be able to know almost word for word what was being said. Sure there were a few mistakes and probably always will be, but the mistakes aren't hard to cope with. I got the message and absolutely loved every word of it!"
The first captioners arrive at 4 a.m. to prepare for one hour of live captioning, making lists of words that may appear on ABC news programsand "Good Morning, America," words that the computer's three automated universal dictionaries may not recognize. They are on hand until 7:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, to 11:30 p.m. Thursday (for "20/20"), to 8:30 p.m. Friday (for PBS' "Washington Week" -- the show Shedd says is the most difficult to caption, because of the rapid and overlapping dialogue), and to midnight Saturdays and Sundays for ABC's news programs. "During the president's trip to Germany," Shedd explained, "we programmed the (computer's three) dictionaries to spell Bitburg, for example," a word that wasn't among the 100,000 previously entered in its software.
With her lists of special words taped nearby, the captioner sets to work on the steno machine, which uses coded combinations called phonemes rather than individual letters. There are several ways to write a word on the stenotype machine, and the computer -- and the captioner -- must know them all.
But the computer's mother-tongue is not English and the electronic system is fallible. The captioner must remember that the machine may read the last syllable of one word together with the first syllable of the next and create an incorrect word. Shedd was chagrined to find that during a discussion about the Supreme Court justices, the phrase "under Warren Burger" had gone out live nationwide as "underwear even burger."
Had "Warren Burger" been programmed into the reporter's daily individual list, it would have overridden the computer dictionaries. But "Warren Burger" wasn't there. Because the machine did not recognize the name Warren Burger, it linked "under" with "war," the first syllable of his name. Shedd says that the captioners spend about two hours each day trying to foresee such problems and going over glitches that occurred despite their efforts.
In addition, the captioner may be faced with unfamiliar spellings -- a foreign name, for example -- and must instantly decide on another method (such as simply "a Turkish diplomat") to identify that person to the viewers. If the time lapse between spoken word and the appearance of the captioned word begins to lag -- four seconds is normal -- she must begin to edit the conversation while staying faithful to the speakers' meanings. Normally, captions move along the viewer's screen at about the same pace as the speaker's conversation, an average of 120 words a minute. If speech becomes more rapid, the caption will appear more quickly. The rate is slightly slower -- 90 words per minute -- for children's shows that can be captioned in advance.
Captioners find that they have developed yet another skill: Sachia says she can now chat while monitoring other conversations around her. That ability is handy in the case of a fast-paced program such as PBS' "Washington Week," so she can caption what several speakers are saying although their remarks may overlap. Working so quickly has pushed her typing speed to about 300 words per minute, she estimates. After eight years as a court reporter, he says, her hands tap on an invisible steno machine whenever she watches television at home.
The stress is so intense, Shedd says, that captioners who do not feel well are asked not to work on live shows. But the work is crucial to the operation, and when the Washington area is paralyzed by snowfalls or ice, NCI will send drivers in four-wheel drive vehicles to fetch captioners and will either house them in a nearby hotel or provide cots in the offices.
At NCI, where access to the rooms of expensive equipment is gained only through coded locks, the captioner sits directly in front of several monitors and watches the live television program along with the viewers. Behind her, at a control panel, sit a text editor and a coordinator who functions as a director. If the show breaks for a commercial or rolls a tape that may have been captioned earlier, the coordinator will call "Stop" to allow the captioner to cease writing -- a hiatus the captioners admit is welcome, especially during a long program such as "Good Morning, America." The text editor, meanwhile, compares the captions with the audio tape and makes corrections to be used during a second feed, if necessary.
"You have made all the deaf people feel normal and part of the world by being able to understand and know what is going on by watching the world news on television. We won't have to depend on our hearing children or friends to tell us what is going on . . ."
Captioning prerecorded materials, commercials and videos -- work done both at the Falls Church headquarters and at the Hollywood office -- is less stressful. Editors use both an audio and a video copy of the show. First, audio material is transcribed separately. Then an editor, watching the video with the transcribed audio at hand, notes the placement of each speaker on (or off) the screen and the time each sentence begins and ends. The editor usually sends the caption across the bottom of the screen -- 1/2-inch high on a typical 19-inch set -- but can move it so that it won't block the actionNCI normally uses a black bar with white lettering, although color can be added and sometimes is for a show such as "Sesame Street," for example.
After the written material is coordinated with the video tape, the captions are recorded on a magnetic disk that is sent to the television broadcaster, where the caption data is inserted in Line 21, Field 1 of the 525-line television signal, designated by the Federal Communications Commission for hearing-impaired services. (Viewers without adapters are unaware of this electronic coded transmission.)
NCI plans to increase the number of programs it captions and eventually to enlarge its mission, to begin captioning in Spanish and engaging in projects to teach reading -- in English -- to illiterates. A recent study at the University of Pittsburgh indicates that captioning works well to teach reading. But NCI clients already know that. One woman wrote:
"For many years I've been deaf and prayed that they would develop the captions for TV. Since we purchased it, it has been a whole new world for me . . . My 11-year-old son has even improved his reading by trying to read the TV captions. He has normal hearing and doesn't need to read it. I'm sure that captions helped his reading ability."
NCI estimates that its first-generation decoders are in about 100,000 American homes and used by about 400,000 viewers, although Don Thieme, NCI's director of public affairs and development, says that there are about 3 million households that could use the technology. By 1990, NCI hopes to be serving at least 500,000 homes and to be captioning about 100 hours of national TV programs every week with only private-sector funding. Currently, half its funding is from private sources, half from the Department of Education.
Recently, the NCI Caption Club, a sort of advisory group comprised of individuals, has begun to relay what deaf viewers would like to see captioned and to collect contributions to pay for some of the work. Last year the group raised $85,000. If they provide the money, NCI will do the captioning. The service is careful to point out that it makes no editorial judgments about what is captioned, but simply does the work on order no matter who pays for it -- advertisers, foundations, networks, individuals.
When NCI was founded in 1979 with government start-up funds, it began by captioning 16 hours of programming a week. Now the service captions more than 70 hours weekly, including 15 hours for cable and 300 commercials, plus home videos. The Hollywood branch, with about 30 staffers, concentrates largely on captioning commercials and home videos, and a third office in New York was opened in August, mainly to offer overnight service for commercials (in by 5 p.m., ready by 10 a.m.).
Although NCI captions ABC's entire prime-time line-up -- about 22 hours, in addition to the network's news programs -- that still accounts for less than 10 percent of broadcast television programs. About 20 hours weekly are captioned for PBS, about eight each for NBC and for CBS. "Typically, after 'Good Morning America,'" notes NCI president John E.D. Ball, "there is nothing else captioned until 'ABC's World News Tonight.' That is about 10 straight hours in the broadcast day with no captioned programs."
Viewers would like NCI to caption the afternoon soaps, but doing so would be expensive. Captioning a one-hour program costs $2,500 and requires about 30 man-hours of work. NCI would need funds to caption shows five days every week throughout the full year since soaps don't run repeats. Captioning a commercial, on the other hand, costs about $250 and takes less than a day. But the money is well-spent. A recent survey showed that 30 percent of deaf viewers had switched brands as a result of seeing a captioned commercial.
"Every Sunday when I receive the TV magazine I always look to see which movies are on for the week and plan my week around these captioned movies. I even buy some of those silly things they advertise on TV when they're captioned -- I never knew how convincing those ads could be until I actually 'heard' them."
Before March 16, 1980, there were no closed-captioned television programs available anywhere in the world. On that day, ABC, NBC and PBS collectively introduced closed- captioning with programs such as "Three's Company," "Wonderful World of Disney," and "3-2-1 Contact." That same year "The Monte Carlo Show" became the first syndicated program to be distributed nationally with closed captions.
The first religious program to be captioned by NCI was Robert Schuller Ministries' "Hour of Power" -- and it has remained captioned for the entire five years. Today, the viewer has a choice of several religious programs: "Tension Point," produced by Lutheran Television, and programs from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, United Methodist Communications, National Episcopal Church -- including the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf -- are all closed-captioned.
On cable TV, Showtime's comedy series "Bizarre" was the first program closed-captioned. Deaf viewers now can see captioned programming on Showtime/The Movie Channel, Tribune Cable Communications, HBO/Cinemax and The Disney Channel. In areas served by cable, NCI notes, 59 percent of decoder owners subscribe to cable TV as compared to 43 percent of the general television audience. NCI began captioning home video movies in 1981, with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition," "Chapter Two," "China Syndrome" and others. The service now captions about 15 home videos each month, jumping from only 12 captioned in mid-1983 to 400 available now. (Look for the NCI servicemark printed on the videocassette.)
During the five years that NCI has offered its service, says Ball, "closed-captioned television technology has been universally adopted throughout the television industry in North America . . . the networks, syndicators, local broadcasters, cablecasters and home video program suppliers all provide some level of service in the USA as well as in Canada." Other countries -- Canada, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy and Sweden -- now provide captioning, but none offer the volume or range of programs that NCI does.
Ball credits ABC with developing a practical engineering solution for closed-captioning, "largely due to the leadership of its chairman and owner, Leonard Goldenson." ABC executive Julius Barnathan chaired a task force established in 1972 by the National Association of Broadcasters, and the FCC approved the task force's idea in late 1976. But Ball says the major technical achievement was "designing a system that allowed program distributors, e.g., TV networks, to add captions to TV programs without imposing an unreasonable burden -- financial or technical -- on them or on local stations and local cable systems." The technology, paid for by federal funds, was done by PBS between 1973 and 1979, andresulted in the development of "Line 21 technology." Federal funds also were used to develop and manufacture the first TeleCaption Adapter.
For more than five years, the adapter has been made by Nuvatec to NCI engineering specifications and packaged in an exterior made by Sanyo. The present decoders, which look like VCRs and cost $279, are sold through Sears, JCPenney, VideoConcepts, hearing aid dispensers and deaf-related organizations. But NCI realizes that the price is high for many viewers. "NCI has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development on a second-generation decoder," explained Thieme. He said he expects "that there will be an announcement regarding this in the next few weeks."
"I can't begin to tell you how great it was to finally view a TV show and understand all the dialogue that's spoken and enjoy it. I was just so thankful and I feel as though a new avenue of life has been opened to me . . . I really consider it a minor miracle!"
"I watched "The Sound of Music" on TV for the umpteenth time. However, this was the first time I understood the songs and the plot of the story -- all because of captions. It was wonderful!"