Toronto September 2001

The King of Closed Captions

The self-appointed watchdog of a growing industry

Every time I call Joe Clark, he is watching television, sitting in front of a thirteen-inch Sears set in his apartment in Toronto. One night recently I caught him during The Simpsons. On another occasion I interrupted an episode of The Practice. Clark watches several hours of TV a day, and he watches every day. But he is hardly your average couch potato, tuning in to unwind. He is hyperalert, his attention unwavering. His mind isn't just on the action, however: Clark has turned on the closed captions and is focused on the words at the bottom of the screen—even though he is neither deaf nor hard of hearing.

Over the past twenty-five years Joe Clark has become a self-taught expert on closed captions and a gadfly to the captioning industry. As he watches, he collects examples of bad captioning, including misspellings, inconsistencies, awkward placement on the screen, and miscuing, and distributes them to a listserv he runs, to regulatory agencies, and to captioning companies themselves—efforts for which he receives no remuneration. He has written nearly thirty articles on captioning and media-access issues and is currently writing a book on Web accessibility.

To deaf viewers, an error in a caption is like a burst of static in an otherwise clean signal. As Clark points out, this static is becoming increasingly apparent to hearing people as well. According to Laura Doty, the marketing supervisor at VITAC (for "vital access"), one of the largest American captioning companies, of the perhaps 120 million people who view captions annually, only 28 million are deaf or hard of hearing. Many of the rest are exposed to captions in airports, health clubs, or bars; others use captions by choice, regarding them as a media form in their own right. And in the years ahead, as Baby Boomers age, the number of people who rely on captions will undoubtedly rise.

The number of captions will rise as well: in 1999 the Federal Communications Commission announced that with a few exceptions, all television programs must have closed captions by 2006. Whether the quality of captioning will improve with ubiquity remains to be seen. The FCC mandate provides no quality standards; it doesn't even require that a show be captioned in its entirety. Moreover, it not only has increased business for large, experienced captioning companies but also has spawned hundreds of so-called mom-and-pop caption shops, which are frequently accused of inferior captioning.

In the meantime, the supply of skilled captioners is shrinking. Many court-reporting schools—traditionally one of the most reliable pools of captioning talent—closed for lack of enrollment when the boom economy of the 1990s diverted potential court reporters into other jobs. Dianne Stark is a selection and captioning coordinator at the National Association of the Deaf's Captioned Media Program, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which oversees the captioning of videotapes for a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Only twenty-one of thirty-nine captioning companies passed the program's qualifying test on the first try (five of the others subsequently passed). With no similar screening criteria required by the FCC, Joe Clark's watchdog activities are likely to become increasingly important as the mandate is carried out.

Joe Clark discovered captions late one night in 1977, while twirling the rotary dial on the family TV in his house in Moncton, New Brunswick. He was twelve years old. He recalls the moment indelibly, down to the fact that he was wearing white pajamas with blue chevrons. "Suddenly," Clark says, "there was Frank Reynolds, reading the news with visible words." The program Clark had stumbled on, The Captioned ABC News, wasn't the first instance of media captioning (the U.S. Department of Education had been subtitling films for the deaf since the 1950s), nor was it the first instance of television captioning (episodes of The French Chef had been captioned some years earlier). It was, however, the first major captioning effort by a U.S. television network. And it forever altered Clark's life.

Soon he was staying up nightly until 1:00 A.M. to watch the show, a captioned rebroadcast of the ABC Evening News. As Clark acknowledges, it was an unusual hobby for a twelve-year-old. "I was attracted to captioning because it provides simultaneous audiovisual input," he says. "For some reason, that kind of multi-track input makes my heart sing." Clark began writing to the Boston station WGBH (whose Caption Center provided the captions for the news) about details that caught his eye—for example, the fact that the lowercase w was taller than other letters.

Presented by

Michael Erard is a linguist and writer. His most recent book is Babel No More, and he edits the magazine Schwa Fire.

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