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.