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New study shows CBC failing deaf TV viewers

New study shows CBC failing deaf TV viewers

Three-year study documents over 100 cases of missing or inadequate captioning for deaf viewers on CBC Television and Newsworld

CBC not meeting a 100%-captioning requirement that was reached through a human-rights settlement with a deaf viewer, study shows

TORONTO, 15 November 2005 – Canada’s English-language public broadcaster isn’t living up to its requirements for captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, a new study shows.

CBC Television and Newsworld failed to provide captioning on 130 occasions over a three-year period, according to the survey by Toronto accessibility consultant Joe Clark.

CBC Television and Newsworld have been required to caption every second of their broadcast days, save for outside commercials, since 2002, when the CBC reached a human-rights settlement with Henry Vlug, a deaf lawyer in Vancouver. The survey, released today, shows that CBC isn’t living up to its 100%-captioning mandate, Clark says.

“The human-rights settlement was pretty clear – CBC Television and Newsworld had to caption absolutely everything, even their own promos and commercials,” Clark said. “The only things that didn’t have to be captioned were commercials from outside sources. And even though the human-rights settlement gave CBC some breathing room for occasional ‘glitches,’ when the networks are giving us a captioning failure every 12 days on average, clearly something is going wrong.”

According to the study, carried out during normal viewing of CBC Television and Newsworld from November 2002 to October 2005, captions were often absent for promos and advertisements for CBC programs; for subtitled programs, which also need captioning so deaf viewers can identify who’s speaking and understand sound effects; some entire episodes of television shows; and, importantly, on many newscasts. “Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers have a right to watch and understand everything on TV,” Clark notes, “but they’ve consistently rated TV news as the most important programming to caption.”

The study also documented a host of captioning errors – not just the misrendered words that are common and often unavoidable in live captioning, but dramatic programs with scrolling captions rather than pop-on blocks, reusing live captions on repeat broadcasts (with all errors intact), and actually recaptioning already-captioned shows.

“The CBC is supposed to be a distinctive alternative to commercial broadcasters,” Clark says. “But here’s one way in which CBC is exactly the same as for-profit broadcasters – lousy captioning. Like other Canadian TV networks, I find that CBC Television and Newsworld play-act at captioning, using whatever captioning is cheapest and not really worrying about compliance with its human-rights settlement.”

CBC’s French-language broadcasters, Radio-Canada and Réseau de l’information, are subject to an unrelated and ongoing human-rights complaint launched by retired senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, Clark notes. “That complaint will probably be settled with a requirement to do more captioning. If the French networks are anything like the English networks, it’s not going to be pretty. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have very good reason to be worried about captioning on all CBC networks.”

Clark says he has forwarded the results of his study to the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Mr. Vlug, the original complainant. Apart from acknowledging receipt, the Commission has not responded, Clark said.

Results of the study are posted online at

Remarks by Henry Vlug

Henry Vlug, the deaf lawyer in Vancouver who filed the original human-rights complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission that resulted in CBC’s 100%-captioning requirement, provided the following statement:

It is unfortunate that the Canadian Human Rights Commission has failed to enforce the settlement in a meaningful way. It is also a tragedy that the CRTC allows CBC and the private broadcasters to get away with the poor job they are doing.

CBC and the private broadcasters do not take captioning seriously. They are often unaware that there is something wrong with their captions. Instead of monitoring this seriously, they often respond to complaints by thanking the complainer for bringing this to their attention – demonstrating they were unaware of the problem until they got the complaint.

About Joe Clark

Toronto journalist, author, and accessibility consultant Joe Clark has studied, written about, and worked in the field of accessibility for people with disabilities for 25 years. Author of the book Building Accessible Websites (New Riders, 2003), the Atlantic Monthly called Clark “the king of closed captions.”

Clark lectures around the world and does paid consulting with clients on accessibility issues. Among his clients was CBC, for whom he completed three contracts, two of which involved captioning of video for the Web. Clark has no current contracts with CBC or competing broadcasters.



A transcription of dialogue and important sound effects. Intended for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Closed captions are captions you have to turn on; nearly all captioning in Canada (and on CBC) is closed captioning.
Scrollup captions
Captions that appear in continuous lines that flow upward on the screen. Used for live programming and a few other cases.
Pop-on captions
Captions that appear as solid blocks, similar to old-style subtitles. The norm for fictional narrative programming and most prerecorded programming.
Real-time captions
Captions produced by a court-reporting process using stenography. The captioner listens to the audio and enters phonetic shorthand on a customized keyboard. Software translates the shorthand into visible words, which are transmitted as (usually scrollup) captions.

Summary of findings

Clark’s full data set is available online. A summary of findings is given below.

Missing captions

Captioning absences fall into several categories:

  1. Absence of captioning on newscasts and other live programming. While the absence of captions is typically remedied within a few minutes, on some occasions there simply isn’t any captioning.
  2. Uncaptioned promos and commercials. Very often the lack of captioning is due to the real-time captioner on the immediately-preceding program, who may inadvertently leave CBC equipment on the wrong setting (failing to leave the CBC encoder in pass-through mode). In another case, casual voiceover intros and extros with simple title cards (as in introductions to late-night movies) are uncaptioned.
  3. Uncaptioned subtitled programming. Subtitling is not captioning and is not sufficient as an accessibility measure for deaf people. Captions are added to the subtitles and fill in utterances that are not subtitled, identify speakers, and denote sound effects, among other things.
  4. Additional uncaptioned programming, like an entire broadcast of the Pan Am Games.

The evidence shows that CBC is in noncompliance with its requirements.


The poor quality of captioning on CBC is a matter that pertains materially to Henry Vlug’s complaint. Providing just any old captioning (or, more relevantly, merely the cheapest captioning) does not achieve equality consistent with guarantees in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Remarks in the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision demonstrate that quality of captioning was a concern even in that late phase of Vlug’s complaint. The issues have been unresolved since then and have, in fact, worsened.

Some categories of error in this domain include:

  1. The use of unqualified staff in CBC’s in-house captioning department. Among many other issues, CBC made up its own captioning style (inconsistently applied from writer to writer), errantly uses all upper case, misunderstands character encoding (producing captions with incorrect characters), and has no concept of alignment or positioning. Another example is the use of unqualified managers during the CBC lockout in 2005.
  2. Improper use of scrollup captioning on fictional narrative programming. Scrollup captioning is used even on American films that were captioned several times with pop-on captions and for classic films that have been in the can with captions for decades.
  3. Improper use of live captioning for events that are demonstrably not live. The Greatest Canadian is an example of a program that was prerecorded far enough in advance to be audio-described for blind and visually-impaired viewers. But not only was it aired with real-time captions, the repeats were aired with the same real-time captions.
  4. Reuse of real-time captions. Along those same lines, CBC has a tendency to simply rerun a tape of a previous live event with the intact, uncorrected real-time captions. CBC Sports Saturday is one example, though there are many others, including Zed. After a live show has been aired once, the correct method is to clean up the real-time captions (correcting all possible errors) and live-display them in the next broadcast. That airing can be taped and rerun at will. Better yet, capture the real-time captions and turn them into pop-on captions. CBC has never taken either of those steps, according to the documentation.
  5. Recaptioning, using real-time, of programs that are already captioned using other methods. Repeatedly on Newsworld we see programs (like NFB documentaries or The Nature of Things) that were known to be captioned yet nonetheless are recaptioned using real-time stenography. Rough Cuts and The Passionate Eye often showed this phenomenon.


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