TV captioning gradually goes where viewers are - the Internet

The website Hulu is adding captioning to more of the television shows it offers, as in this scene from "The Office."
The website Hulu is adding captioning to more of the television shows it offers, as in this scene from "The Office."
Posted: February 24, 2011

Captions on television have long been a help for the deaf and for the millions with less severe hearing problems, providing a running transcript of programs in those now-familiar white letters that flit across the screen.

Available on any TV measuring at least 13 inches made after 1993, they're also useful for those learning to speak English, and for anyone who wants to watch programs with the sound off to avoid waking a family member.

But there has been a shortage of captions available for people who prefer the new way of watching television: on the Internet.

That is starting to change, as websites untangle the technical issues and the Federal Communications Commission moves to implement a law enacted in October.

The law, to be phased in starting next year, will require Internet captions for any program that has previously been shown on TV with captions. It does not apply to movies, such as those shown on Netflix, but company spokesman Steve Swasey said that site nevertheless planned to offer some captions "pretty soon." And Hulu.com, a site that streams TV programs, already provides captions for some shows.

Nancy Peterson, a Merion Station woman who has a partial hearing loss in both ears, said having the text displayed on the screen was essential.

Turning up the volume also helps, but that makes it too loud for her husband, Michael Gross, and doesn't improve clarity. She relies on captions, especially when actors mumble or don't face the camera or speak in foreign accents.

"It helps you fill in the gaps," Peterson said. "You put it all together."

Internet TV viewing is growing more popular, with close to half of consumers doing it to some degree every week, according to a 2010 survey by Ericsson ConsumerLab.

Also in the law is a requirement that broadcasters begin to offer a service called video description - essentially, a running audio commentary for the blind that describes the action on screen.

Already available for some programs on Fox and CBS, such descriptions are prerecorded and skillfully inserted into the silent gaps between actors' dialogue - say, something like: "A woman in a red dress enters the room."

The FCC tried to impose such a regulation a decade ago, but it was struck down in court after a challenge by industry groups, said Mark Richert, director of public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind.

The new law, signed by President Obama on Oct. 8 with Stevie Wonder in attendance, enacted the requirement that the FCC had tried to achieve through regulation.

The agency still must issue rules to implement the law, and the mandate starts small - with just a few hours a week on certain popular channels. Still, it will be a boon to those with impaired vision, said Richert, who is blind.

For example, imagine a whodunit-type movie to which you've been carefully listening for two hours to learn the identity of the bad guy, Richert said. What if the actors don't come right out and say it?

"If it's just somebody whose photograph is shown on the screen, you're not going to get anything out of it," Richert said.

He said new equipment was not needed to take advantage of video description; it can be turned on with existing digital tuners or set-top cable boxes.

Internet captions, on the other hand, face some technical hurdles, said Ann Marie Rohaly, chair of the broadband technical committee for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

It isn't just a matter of translating the text from the TV format to one that will work on the Internet, she said.

"They're just completely different technologies that are just incompatible," said Rohaly, also a Microsoft executive who works on accessibility issues.

The sites that already do captions have used various approaches, some of which are proprietary, she said. Her committee has developed a standard for broader use.

The rule should have broad impact, as 36 million U.S. adults report some degree of hearing loss. Some had hoped for a caption requirement for movies as well, said Lise Hamlin, director of public policy for the Hearing Loss Association of America. But it didn't happen because the law was an outgrowth of an earlier law that dealt primarily with television, she said.

Still, the Internet captions will be welcomed by Peterson and by her son, Elliott, 8, who also has a hearing loss. And the boy gets an added benefit from words on the screen, his mother said:

They make him a better reader.


Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com.

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