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.

Until 1981 any show that had captions was universally broadcast with them. But that year TV-industry executives, responding to anecdotal evidence that hearing people disliked having text on their screens, took "open" captions off the air. Viewers who wanted captions now needed a decoding device (in 1993 decoders became mandatory on most new TVs). Clark's mother was opposed to buying one (getting her to watch images and read text at the same time was "like asking her to use pinking shears in one hand and a whisk in the other," Clark says), so he spent hours watching captioned shows in the electronics department at Sears. He finally acquired his own decoder when he was twenty-two. He studied linguistics in college and has pursued various interests—he has written about topics ranging from Web design to pop music, and he worked for several years as the only able-bodied person on a team that prompted disability awareness among schoolchildren. All the while he has continued to watch captions more avidly than most people watch TV.

During his decades-long vigil Clark has witnessed a slow but steady evolution. In the early days even high-quality captions used simple grammar and assumed a slow reading speed (120 words or so per minute), because the deaf were thought to be poor readers. Consequently, a lot of material was left out. In the late 1980s the deaf community lobbied for captions closer to verbatim. Now, says Jeff Hutchins, the executive vice-president of planning at VITAC, "the job of the captioner is to convey all the information that the hearing person gets." Today captions sometimes reach 250 words a minute.

Captioning—rendering speech as text—may appear to be a simple process, but in fact it is highly complicated and prone to error. "Pop-on" captions, added between filming and broadcast, can be edited for accuracy. But "roll-up" captions, used on live shows such as news programs and sports events, are produced in real time, by a captioner using phonetic shorthand on a stenography keyboard. The work is fast-paced and relentless. Valerie Waite is a real-time captioner at Waite & Associates, in Whitby, Ontario (and one of the rare captioners who have earned Clark's praise). During a half-hour live news show she is responsible for capturing every word, without backup or relief. "Every day I hope to do a perfect show," she says. "But it hasn't happened yet, and it probably never will."

Although Clark accepts the inevitability of real-time gaffes, he deems any avoidable error in the pop-on format unacceptable, and he is easily vexed. He criticizes the sans serif fonts typically used for captions as "typographically debased" (among other things, the spacing of their letters cannot be adjusted, and they cannot render many accented letters and other unusual characters), and he complains that to a foreign viewer, the standard U.S. and Canadian practice of using all capital letters "makes everyone seem like they're shouting."

His tone when sharing his views on such matters has earned him a reputation for being sarcastic and prickly. His demeanor has alienated him even from people he has known for decades and from those who agree with many of his criticisms. "I can't pretend to understand the mind of Joe Clark," says Larry Goldberg, the director of the Media Access Group at WGBH. "He gets it right a lot of the time, but he absolutely rubs people the wrong way." So much so, in fact, that some captioning companies now refuse even to listen to what he has to say.

Others, however, clearly appreciate his advocacy. "Joe won't give up," Alfred Sonnenstrahl, a telecommunications-accessibility consultant who is deaf, told me recently. "Yes, I've heard of his bugging people. But I tend to read between the lines and find some concerns valid."

Never did Clark's concerns seem more valid than on December 11 of last year—the eve of the U.S. Supreme Court's final decision about the Florida election results. Most of us recall those days for their importance in the history of American politics. For Clark they have more to do with the history of American media. Because the television networks were allowed only audio tracks of the Court's proceedings, they accompanied their broadcasts with real-time open captions. "I have followed this stuff for 20 years, and I have never seen open captioning on five stations simultaneously," Clark wrote to his listserv. "Except for today. A watershed in the acceptance of captioning."