Joe Clark: Accessibility ¶ Design ¶ Writing

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What’s really happening here

An inveterate industry insider and schmoozer with a history of failed captioning projects is attempting to induce a reputed client, the federal broadcast regulator, to shake down a private company for de facto lifetime funding for her pet project.

Bev Milligan is an industry insider

Media Access Canada “acting president and CEO” Beverly Ostafichuk Milligan has a decades-long history of logrolling and insider deals with the same broadcasters who are the cause of the accessibility problem.

For developing previous captioning software and devising captioning sponsorships, Ostafichuk received an award from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. Ostafichuk’s company also bestowed an award on the CAB . Media Access Canada is now offering its own set of awards, named after Josef Frenken – an excellent way to ingratiate one’s organization with award recipients and the industry in general.

Accessibility requires independent outside development, not sweetheart deals with an industry schmoozer.

Bev Milligan has a history of failed projects

Media Access Canada’s demands are a rehash

We’ve been through this already: Caption monitoring is the problem, not a solution.

  1. The CRTC is the entity with the legal authority to regulate broadcasting, including captioning. No one else has that legal authority.
  2. With no researched and tested standards in place, what are we monitoring? The mere presence or absence of captions? That’s a rather rudimentary issue. Broadcasters can and must monitor presence or absence of captioning on their own channels; in fact, it can be automated and, for Canwest, has been. What about captioning quality? Without researched and tested standards, how do we monitor that?
  3. There’s too much programming to monitor. Tell me, who’s going to watch Showcase Action 24/7 to monitor their captioning? It is impossible to monitor even all the programming on a single channel, let alone all programming on many channels. By the time you’ve taken note of a captioning error (what will you do with that note?) you’ve missed another five of them. Or if you paused the video, you’re now five minutes behind. You’ll never catch up.
  4. Monitoring is post-facto. By the time you notice an absence of captioning or lousy captioning, it’s too late: The show is already airing, the captioning is already done. The horse has bolted from the stable. Caption monitoring is all about the past. You can monitor captioning all you want, but you can’t fix it. Monitoring is a statement of injury, not prevention of it.
  5. Monitoring is a precursor to complaints. The complaint-driven system is a proven failure. As I have been explaining for years, people watch TV mostly to relax. Nobody is going to be in a big rush to get up off the couch and somehow figure out how to file a complaint, which will, in any event, be dismissed. Monitoring means complaints; complaints are what we have now, and they don’t work.
  6. If Milligan’s existing hires are any indication, staff doing this monitoring will be university students, and not even graduates at that. These people will be too young to actually understand how to render speech in captioning, will have too-small vocabularies for the task, and, at root, will be too green to actually understand captioning. Monocultures are weak, as we all know, but inevitably all or nearly all these monitors will be young women with liberal-arts degrees they haven’t finished yet. A crowd of people with near-equivalent backgrounds can be relied upon to make the same mistakes.

In a system ostensibly guaranteeing 100% captioning, monitoring a “sample” guarantees that actual caption failures will be missed.

The concept of a monitoring project is a complete non-starter. It won’t work; it can’t be done in the first place; and the components that are actually practically achievable are the broadcaster’s job already. A monitoring project is merely a funding vehicle for Media Access Canada and solves no extant problem. A monitoring project is a make-work project.

When asked to prioritize, Media Access Canada chooses its own funding over improved accessibility

Put on the spot – by the CRTC chair himself, not known for lobbing softballs like this – to “prioritize” one of her recommendations, Milligan came back with two: Fund her monitoring project and fund her claimed “harmonized industry standards.”

Milligan’s priority, stated as such under direct questioning, is not an increase in quantity or quality of actual accessible broadcasting but funding for her own company. Milligan, by her own testimony, is looking for a sinecure.

Media Access Australia is no standard of comparison

Bev Milligan writes that Canada really needs a body like Media Access Australia, which, she notes, benefits from an endowment. She’s really saying Bev Milligan deserves an endowment.

There’s no comparison whatsoever. Media Access Australia, while generally ineffectual and ignored, as all accessibility organizations are, at least has credibility, particularly in the person of its executive director, Alex Varley. Media Access Australia works out in the open with government and industry and doesn’t rely on backroom deals with industry friends, to name a habit Bev Milligan has proven herself unable to break.

At any rate, accessibility in Australia is so stunted – in essence, all they have is captioning here and there – that an omnibus organization like Varley’s is needed. In Canada, what we need are legitimate, independently-developed standards. We don’t need an empire run by Bev Milligan.

Media Access Canada already has funding

Milligan admits, in a tiny footnote, what her company Web site openly states: Media Access Canada already has been funded – via a backroom deal with CTV – to monitor captioning. Or actually it is not clear what the project does, given Milligan’s inability to write comprehensibly:

Monitor 2: A report on best practices in the provision of accessible media in Canadian Broadcasting will make possible the development of quantitative measures of the effects of policy, marketing and sponsorship revenue, on the availability, quality and technological advances of accessibility in Canadian broadcasting.

(Remember: A person who writes this badly wants an effective veto power over the written word as expressed in captioning and description.)

The CRTC is a reported client of Media Access Canada

A European report holds that “[t]he CRTC has... appointed Media Access Canada..., a consultancy company run by Beverly Milligan, to undertake a review of access services, looking at compliance (i.e., meeting quotas) and quality issues.” (When asked, CRTC refused to deny this claim. No entry for Media Access Canada or Milligan appears on the 2009 proactive-disclosure pages, but all that means is the contract might have been worth less than $10,000.)

If true, the Commission is in a conflict of interest. According to a report, the CRTC hired Milligan; CRTC is her client. And now we’ve got the chair of the CRTC asking Milligan which goodies it should hand her on a platter – paid for by somebody else.

As insiders, Media Access Canada cannot improve on shoddy Canadian “research”

Media Access Canada is an industry-insider organization with no research credentials, not an independent research body. As such, and with her history of failed projects, Milligan could reasonably be expected to produce the kind of compromised and slipshod “research” the CRTC and its friends have tried to pass off as valid. While this is speculative, the evidence is strong.

Unluckily for the CRTC, the CAB isn’t around anymore to launder industry-friendly research

The collapse of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters in May 2010 drove a stake through the heart of the undead vampire of so-called “captioning research” in Canada. In CAB-sponsored “research,” hand-picked broadcaster insiders met in secret, wrote down what they already did, and passed it off as a standard. A legitimate standard is developed out in the open, with contributions from all interested parties, and tested to prove it works. None of that happened.

The CAB process was useful for the CRTC because it gave the CRTC a cover story. It enabled the CRTC to claim that outside research had been done. But in fact the industry controlled the whole thing, up to and including a rubber-stamp from commissioners, nearly all of whom used to work for broadcasters or telcos or will in the future.

In particular, this failed process gave current director of Social and Consumer Policy Martine Vallee a means by which to launder useless “standards” to the satisfaction of an industry that never wanted them in the first place.

Recent research was an outright sham

In 2009, the CRTC again attempted to launder its “research” through the CAB, whose hand-picked “working group” of cut-rate captioners and seat-filling unknowns proceeded to conduct unrepresentative testing with “focus groups” and pass it off as research. Even the CRTC could not polish this turkey and ordered this claimed working group to produce statistically valid research.

As the CAB no longer exists, neither does that working group, so that particular sweetheart deal is dead on the vine.

CRTC allegedly convened secret standardization committees

I am reliably informed that the CRTC presently has secret committees working on standards for captioning and audio description. The captioning committee, it is said, has representation from the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, which refused to comment, and is ostensibly chaired or otherwise managed by former CAB nabob and publicist Richard Cavanagh, who also refused comment.

As such, I have reason to believe that not only does CRTC wish to force Shaw to swing a sweetheart deal with a company it reputedly hired, the CRTC is running its own “standardization” process behind closed doors with a compliant membership.

This is not about making accessibility cheaper

It’s no surprise that the woman who once thought that accessibility relies on the kindness of advertisers – remember, she invented caption sponsorships, now a source of outright consumer fraud – also believes that costs for audio description can and must go down. In fact, costs for captioning and audio description need to increase.

Broadcasters hate spending money on either of those and they shop on price. Why else could second-rate operators like BCCS and the curiously named Look Smart Captioning even exist? Why else would postproduction houses hack together their own captioning, and now audio description?

Milligan’s forecast of 5%-per-year reductions in description cost is hypothetical and, at any rate, immaterial to a multi-billion-dollar broadcasting oligopoly. It’s peanuts. Any reduction of that sort will do nothing but price legitimate suppliers out of the market. That’s exactly what happened when Rogers took over CITY-TV, for example – the best real-time captioner in the business simply closed up shop.

Broadcasters, if left to their own devices, would have a computer do their captioning at zero cost. Milligan, if left to her own devices, would badger the CRTC to require broadcasters to fund her operations, she testified, even as actual suppliers get nickelled and dimed.

Bev Milligan and Media Access Canada have no credibility or qualifications in standards development

Bev Milligan’s résumé is a bit thin when it comes to captioning – and practically nonexistent on the topic of audio description.

Once you remove her failed captioning software and failed sponsorship program from consideration, on the captioning side all you’re left with is a history of insider lobbying and the accident of being born to deaf parents.

On the description side, I see that Milligan formerly sat on the National Broadcast Reading Service board of directors (2003 NBRS annual report; Web listings through early 2006) and was listed as chair of the NBRS marketing committee (2005–2006 annual report). Perhaps she made a few contacts there, but actual accomplishments seem few and far between.

Where Milligan has no credibility or experience whatsoever is in standards development.

This entire process stinks

It’s plainly apparent that the CRTC intends to disregard even rudimentary ethics, let alone enforced government integrity rules, and require a private company to fund its own contractor. Fund what? One project nobody wants and another project the organization cannot carry out.

There’s another word for a deal like this: Corrupt. It continues to amaze that the CRTC can carry out structurally corrupt deals with the broadcasters it purports to regulate without ever managing to pocket a bribe.

There already is a viable alternative

The viable alternative to this nonsense is the Open & Closed Project. It’s an independent research project with broad support. Broadcasters don’t want to pay for it. Then again, they hate paying for anything on this topic, so it’s not as though we feel singled out.

CRTC doesn’t want broadcasters to pay for the Project, either, and has gerrymandered the rules for tangible benefits to ensure it didn’t happen. If we haven’t gotten funded through tangible benefits, Bev Milligan and Media Access Canada cannot, either. If proposals that are viable and would actually work can’t get funded through tangible benefits, empire-building cannot, either.

Benefits packages are already backroom deals. Don’t make matters worse.

Incidentally, what’s happening with Canwest captioning?

Did you notice that nobody at all in this proceeding has tendered evidence about what Canwest is currently doing with captioning? Could it be that no one, certainly not Bev Milligan, actually watches captioning on Canwest channels?

(Does anyone at the CRTC or any broadcaster watch captioning – ever?)

Since Canwest took over from Alliance Atlantis, here’s what’s happened.

So that’s what’s happening with Canwest captioning. In case anybody but me actually cared, which apparently no one does.

Posted: 2010.09.30

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