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As new FCC rule takes effect, shortage of skilled captioners grows

Hogan, Michelle

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000286491.56272.02

Michelle Hogan is an editorial assistant with The Hearing Journal

For deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers, closed captioning of television programming provides a crucial medium for enjoying a favorite program or movie, keeping up with current events, and even receiving potentially lifesaving information during an emergency, such as last year's hurricanes. But advocacy organizations for the hearing-impaired population, programming providers, and captioning companies are all worried that there simply aren't enough qualified professionals available to meet the demand for captioning—a demand that has grown more pressing with the arrival of the Federal Communications Commission's January 1 deadline to caption nearly all television programming.

“There aren't as many really qualified captioners out there as are needed for the work,” said Jack Spellman, operations manager for the Media Access Group at WGBH in Boston. He said that the Media Access Group uses captioners who caption at greater than 98% accuracy, and the group aims for 100% accuracy. “What's difficult,” said Spellman, “is there isn't a huge number of people who are that good. And, as more and more is required to be captioned, we're getting folks who aren't at that level of ability. So the quality is suffering, and it's an issue that everyone is struggling with.”

The opposing forces of an increasing demand and decreasing supply have spurred advocacy and industry groups to take action. In hopes of increasing the supply of trained captioners as well as court reporters, the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) is lobbying Congress to appropriate $80 million over 4 years for training these professionals.

In an effort to improve the quality of captioning, Telecommunications for the Deaf, National Association of the Deaf, the Hearing Loss Association of America (formerly Self Help for Hard of Hearing People), the Association of Late Deafened Adults, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumer Advocacy Network jointly filed a petition for rulemaking with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Their petition calls for measures that include the adoption of specific quality standards and additional enforcement mechanisms.

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Captions are similar to subtitles in that they display the audio portion of a program in writing on the television screen. However, there are differences. Captions are sometimes specifically placed to identify the speakers, and they may be used to indicate non-verbal sounds, such as sound effects and laughter.

Captions are sometimes produced live, in real time. In these situations, captioners usually type words on a steno machine as they hear them, and a computer program translates the steno into written words on the screen. Other times, captions are made after production, in which case they can be edited. It can take years for a person to hone the skills needed by an adept real-time captioner.

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress required all video programming distributors, including broadcasters, cable operators, and satellite providers, to close-caption their television programming. In 1997, the FCC set up a transition schedule that called for a step-by-step increase in the percentage of programming that had to be captioned, culminating on January 1, 2006 with the mandate for captioning 100% of programming. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as programming distributed to residential households between 2 and 6 am, non-news programming that is locally produced and distributed and has no repeat value, and programming in languages other than English and Spanish. Distributors can also apply for individual exemptions.

Three weeks after the deadline passed, it remained unclear exactly how the new mandate had changed the delivery of captioned programming. Advocacy groups for the deaf and hard of hearing did not observe any change in the volume of complaints they received from consumers.

“It's been quiet with our members,” said Todd Houston, PhD, executive director of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell). “I wouldn't say we've gotten any more or less complaints since January 1.”

The Hearing Loss Association of America had not received any complaints from consumers since the mandate took effect, said Brenda Battat, MS, the organization's associate executive director. However, she indicated that poor quality was still a problem for captioning.

Telecommunications for the Deaf, however, has received copies of complaints filed with the FCC and with video programming distributors since January 1, said Claude Stout, executive director of the organization.

Although the FCC requires programming to be captioned, it does not regulate the quality of the captioning. This is something that advocacy groups behind the FCC petition for rulemaking would like to change. “We don't want to just get captioning on TV. We want good captioning,” said Stout, through an interpreter.

The petition also calls for changes to the complaint process for captioning, including creation of a database with updated contact information for video programming distributors and providers and the creation of a captioning complaint form. Currently, viewers wishing to submit complaints to the FCC must first seek out the contact information for the video programming distributor, which is often a challenge. They then file a complaint with the distributor, and usually have to wait at least 45 days for a response. The petition also calls for setting fines and other penalties for failure to comply with the captioning rules.

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In a report entitled “The Captioning Crisis: A Case for Swift and Decisive Action” and released September 9, 2005, the NCRA called for congressional funding of competitive grants “to promote training and placement of individuals… as real-time writers,” as called for in Senate Bill 268, the Training for Realtime Writers Act. The Senate passed the bill on July 1, 2005, but the House of Representatives has not yet voted on it. Since 2001, Congress has earmarked $12 million to 22 court reporting programs to temporarily address the training issue.

The court reporters group said an infusion of money is needed so schools can create or rejuvenate training programs—building infrastructure, funding technology, and enrolling more students. Competition from other fields, such as Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), which is used in such places as classrooms and doctors' offices and instantly translates spoken word into text shown on a computer screen or other display, has also cut into the supply of broadcast captioners, said Peter Wacht, senior director of communications and public affairs for the NCRA. Prospective captioners have also been drawn to court reporting, Spellman said, where they can often make more money and work more convenient hours.

Without a revitalization of the work force, the quality of captioning will suffer, said Kathy DiLorenzo, vice-president of national reporter relations for the captioning company VITAC. She warned that the increased burden imposed by the new FCC mandate would fall on the already depleted ranks of current captioners. “It will take a lot of work for them to get all of the programming covered,” she said. “And, when a captioner is writing on that machine for so many hours a day, even if they're very highly qualified, the quality will suffer.”

Spellman said the captioner shortage will affect not network newscasts, but local news broadcasts, and he predicted that these programs would respond to the mandate in one of two ways. “They're going to start hiring more stenocaptioners or agencies that employ stenocaptioners, but there's going to be enough demand that the quality is probably going to slip because you will have people coming on line who aren't as good as the people who have been doing it for network broadcasts.”

He also said that local news producers might turn to voice-recognition captioning. In this technology, a trained individual revoices the original words of a program and software translates the revoiced words into written text. The problem is, said Spellman, “The voice-recognition software out there is not really good enough to do this sort of work.”

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Representatives from advocacy groups for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and from captioning companies say that the quality of current captioning is generally good, though with some exceptions.

“I think for pre-recorded television shows there's really no reason why it shouldn't be good,” said Todd Houston of AG Bell. “The issue that comes up is live newscasts, and I think what we've seen since 9/11, and more recently this summer with the hurricanes, is that there is an incredible need by individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing who depend on captioning to have live captioning available during those events.”

He added, “I think most people would understand that there are going to be some mistakes if it's happening live. No one's perfect, but there's no reason why a threshold of 90%, 95%, or even higher can't be set and reached. That's just through training and people being persistent.”

Captioning errors may be either technical or non-technical in nature. Technical problems often result in the absence, disappearance, or garbling of captioning, said Brenda Battat of the Hearing Loss Association. Non-technical problems are caused by human error, such as incorrect keystrokes.

In their petition for rulemaking, Telecommunications for the Deaf and the other advocacy groups included examples of textual mistakes in captioning, including the following from the Discovery Channel program Nefertiti Resurrected: “hire gliks” for “hieroglyphics,” “mmyfied” for “mummified,” “probelg” for “probably,” and “carnation” or “car mac” for “Karnak.”

The quality of captioning for local live programming has lagged behind that of national live programming, said DiLorenzo of VITAC, partly because much local captioning is done by people who don't live in the area. She explained that captioners may be unable to see the broadcast and may be unfamiliar with the local news and with reporters' names, which makes it difficult for them to caption correctly, especially proper nouns such as the names of streets.

Local and national news programming operate according to different standards, said Jay Feinberg, director of marketing services for the National Captioning Institute, which captions both nationally and locally. “In general,” he said, “the national news programming have higher standards and pay more for their captioning. Local news generally is not held to as strict a standard as the national networks maintain.”

However, Frank Willson insisted that this isn't necessarily the case. Willson, who is director of operations for WBNS-10 TV, a CBS affiliate in central Ohio, said that his station has repeatedly exceeded FCC requirements, captioning 100% of programming as of mid-2005 and offering closed captioning in Spanish or English language programming. He said he has received no complaints from viewers about the station's captioning since he began handling viewer e-mail in 2002. He added that he sees no difference in quality between the live captioning on CBS network programming and that on WBNS.

Other stations also stood behind the quality of their captioning. In comments to the FCC on the rulemaking petition, broadcasters, including CBS Broadcasting Inc., NBC Telemundo License Co., and the ABC Television Network, as well as the National Association of Broadcasters, spoke out against setting specific quality guidelines. They argued that imposing such guidelines would impose an administrative and financial burden and is unnecessary, given the current quality of closed captioning and the existing incentives for programming providers to provide high-quality captioning, such as the desire to provide programming to as many viewers as possible.

Maureen Domal, vice-president of program operations in the broadcasting operations and engineering division of ABC, said that her network gets very few complaints about its captioning and has never been fined for captioning issues. “Any complaints we've investigated in the last few years have been traced to cable or satellite systems,” she said.

Despite the current shortage of captioners, Battat is hopeful that captioning quality will get better and better. “I think overall—maybe I'm optimistic—we will see a gradual continued improvement,” she said. “It's in everybody's best interest for the captioning quality to be good.”

© 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.