In 2004, retired Canadian Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, a hard-of-hearing person, filed a complaint against Société Radio-Canada, the French arm of the CBC, concerning captioning. As part of the settlement process, SRC agreed to submit a report on the state of captioning, particularly real-time captioning, on Radio-Canada (the general-interest public broadcaster) and Réseau de l’information (the all-news network).
The report, which you have to E-mail the Canadian Human Rights Commission to get, carries the date of 2005.04.28, though I received it three months later.
I read the French original, entitled “Comité de travail concernant le sous-titrage codé en français à la télévision de Radio-Canada,” and have the following remarks. All quotations are my own translation.
As of autumn 2005, there is an online version of the report in English.
There is, as ever, an obsession with quantity of captioning rather than quantity and quality. Senator Gauthier’s complaint, which I haven’t seen, presumably alleges that captioning anything short of 100% of programming constitutes discrimination, or unequal treatment, on the basis of disability. I believe he was particularly concerned about live programming.
Right there in the executive summary, Radio-Canada plans to reach 100% captioning on Radio Canada “all day” and 90% on RDI, again “all day,” with 100% during the most-watched times of day, 0600–1000 and 1600–0000 hours.
There is, however, an ambiguity. CRTC rules state that the broadcast day runs from 0600 hours to 0100 hours each day. The broadcast day is up to 18 hours long by policy. Officially, overnight programming is unregulated; it barely exists.
A footnote at the end of the report states that “the network timetable broadcasts about 18 hours of programming per day, 126 hours per week, 6,552 hours per year. RDI broadcasts 24 hours a day, that is, 168 hours per week, 8,736 hours per year.”
As it stands now:
This human-rights case may result in a requirement for SRC to caption every minute that Radio-Canada and RDI are on the air, or it might require 100% captioning of the broadcast day. The report leans toward the former, but does not even discuss the mismatch between calendar days and broadcast days. I recommend that the Commission specifically and unambiguously address this discrepancy in its decision.
As ever and yet again, we’ve got a report on captioning that spends too much time on the topic of voice recognition. That failed vapourware technology, which will not be producing accurate captions at any point in our lifetimes, is held up as a possible solution to the problem of captioning at RDI; the report suggests that voice recognition will push RDI from 90% captioning to 100%. (They mention “technological advances, particularly in the field of voice recognition.” I’m not sure what other “technological advances” are on the horizon. They really mean voice recognition.)
The report also mentions that “to our knowledge, the technology of voice recognition has yet to attain the quality levels of stenography for real-time captioning on television.” Indeed it hasn’t, and it’s not going to, either, anytime soon. SRC’s in-house captioning department uses speaker-dependent voice recognition as a transcription method for offline captioning, which is a different matter entirely. (Actually, they also say they use “a regular keyboard.”)
SRC would be well advised to stick with stenography for that extra 10% captioning on RDI, and I encourage the Commission to disregard altogether any appeals to a technology that doesn’t exist as a solution to a present-day captioning problem.
SRC proposes to work with La Cité collégiale, Ottawa, to develop a twelve-month training course for French-language stenography. (Incredibly, to this day there is no such course; though la Cité collégiale had been trying to get one off the ground since 2003, there weren’t enough students, the report states.) SRC will then provide internships for twelve months “at its cost” (does that mean the interns will be paid?) for graduates of the program.
The details, however, are a problem:
The training program will be of dubious benefit anyway since the report states that interns will have to transcribe a mere 110 words per minute in order to be hired by Radio-Canada. This is an outright joke. English-language real-time captioners aren’t considered competent below 180 wam, with 220 wam preferred – and that’s for a language with fewer words of shorter average length than French! (I’m actually giving you a conservative estimate. Gary D. Robson, in The Closed Captioning Handbook, p. 119: “Real-time stenocaptioners must regularly work at sustained speeds of over 225 words per minute with accuracy of 99% or better.)
If a program has dialogue at an expected 180 to 220 words per minute, SRC promises to caption 50% to 61% of it. Will that be enough, Senator Gauthier?
Thankfully, the report spares us the oft-reiterated lie that French-language captioning is “more complex” than English-language, hence captioning targets should be lower. Offline captioning isn’t any harder than it is in English. Real-time captioning isn’t conceptually harder; we merely lack trained court reporters.
The report does head off in a new direction, though, when it states that “stenotypy was developed first in English-speaking countries, since the syntax of the language is simpler.” That’s a severely ethnocentric view that no professional linguist would back up. Certainly the morphology of French is more complex than English, with its gender and number agreement, but that’s simply part and parcel of captioning the French language.
Further, “the complexity of the French language does not facilitate phonetic transcription and has hindered development of the technology for the French language,” apparently. The statement is false. French real-time captioners’ keystrokes for suffixes (like masculine, feminine, and plural endings) are no different from English-language captioners’ keystrokes for suffixes. If the report’s authors were more familiar with the ways in which words are built up using machine shorthand, they would not have made a statement of this sort.
The report wastes a full page listing some of Radio-Canada’s extremely impressive captioning milestones, some of them incorrect or misleading.
Elsewhere, we are told that “to our knowledge, Radio-Canada is the only French-language broadcaster in the world to caption all of its news programs, including live segments.” That may be true now, but in 1996, TFO captioned Panorama live, with cleaned-up captions on rebroadcast.
The report states that SRC uses the Médiatex system for real-time captioning. It was codeveloped by IBM and uses the Grandjean keyboard.
The SRC is looking for a replacement for Médiatex. According to the report’s schedule, «un appel d’information (Request for Information)» will be published from April to June 2005. But Marc Cavanagh of Radio-Canada informs me via E-mail that the process was still outstanding at the end of July 2005, though he refused to state when the contract would actually be awarded. (He also refused to provide a copy of the “supply request,” and went so far as to forward my inquiry to SRC’s lawyers. Is there something to be afraid of?)
As I suggested before, Senator Gauthier, the Commission, and the SRC are dealing with only half the problem. Yes, everything needs to be captioned (and nearly everything needs to be audio-described), but just any old captions won’t do. Quality is an issue, and anyone who thinks there are actual quality standards at work at SRC hasn’t watched their captions.
At the level of a human-rights complaint, any settlement with SRC must at the very least:
Posted: 2005.07.29 ¶ Updated: 2006.08.07, 2007.03.01