What’s wrong with CBC captioning?

Questions & answers by Joe Clark

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V1.0      2006.08.07

Back to CBC captioning

What’s this slideshow about?

You’re reading a set of questions and answers about CBC captioning. We’ll learn why CBC Television and Newsworld have a 100% captioning requirement, why they aren’t meeting that requirement, and what this tells us about reaching 100% captioning everywhere on TV.

Why does CBC have to caption everything?   (1 of 2)

Because Henry Vlug, a deaf lawyer in Vancouver, filed a human-rights complaint against CBC Television and Newsworld in 1997. In 2001, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed with his complaint. The Tribunal decided that TV shows without captions harmed Vlug’s rights as a person with a disability.

Why does CBC have to caption everything?   (2 of 2)

The Tribunal ordered CBC to fix the problem by captioning 100% of its telecasts on CBC Television and Newsworld. That means everything that is broadcast, not just TV shows.

The decision only applies to CBC Television and Newsworld, not any of the CBC French networks or digital channels like Country Canada and the Documentary Channel. It also doesn’t apply to video on the Web.

What other broadcasters have a 100%-captioning requirement?

To my knowledge, none – anywhere. (Some pay-TV movie channels in Canada have to caption all their movies, including porn. But they don’t have to caption everything they broadcast the way CBC Television and Newsworld do.)

When did 100% captioning start?

The Tribunal decision came out in November 2000. CBC and the Human Rights Commission claimed that 100% captioning would start in November 2002. I started taking notes about CBC captioning at that time.

Does “100% captioning” really mean everything?

Yes, it means every minute that is broadcast by CBC Television and Newsworld. Nothing can be left uncaptioned. That means TV shows have to be captioned, which you would expect. But it also means that CBC’s own advertisements for its programming and all commercials have to be captioned.

What happens if a really brief period of programming, like a couple of minutes, isn’t captioned?

CBC is probably OK in that case, because the Tribunal understood that small mistakes will happen here and there. What the Tribunal said was “there will inevitably be glitches with respect to the delivery of captioning [but] these should be the exceptions. The rule should be full captioning.”

If CBC has to caption 100%, are there any exceptions?

No, apart from “glitches.” There really are no exceptions – at all. Everything has to be captioned.

Is quantity of captioning the only thing CBC has to worry about?

Not exactly. The Tribunal decision told us that Henry Vlug complained about poor quality of captioning (“Sometimes the quality of the captioning is so poor that the programs may as well not be captioned at all”). The decision does not tell CBC that quality is as important as quantity. But because captioning quality was one reason Henry Vlug filed his complaint, it has to be considered.

So is CBC really captioning 100%?

No. They’re trying really hard, but they aren’t at 100% yet, three years after the decision took effect.

What are they doing wrong?   (0 of 5)

There are five main problem areas.

What are they doing wrong?   (1 of 5)

Outside TV commercials aren’t always captioned

Only CBC’s own promos for shows are captioned.

What are they doing wrong?   (2 of 5)

Subtitled shows usually aren’t captioned

If you’re deaf, you can’t follow a subtitled show just from the subtitles, because they leave too much out.

What are they doing wrong?   (3 of 5)

Live captioning is used on shows that aren’t live

Live captioning is great for news and other events that are happening live. It isn’t the right thing to use for prerecorded shows. CBC uses live captioning on a lot of recorded shows. It leaves live captioning in place on repeats of live shows.

What are they doing wrong?   (4 of 5)

Scrollup captioning is used on dramas and comedies

Scrollup captioning is really hard to watch and understand on a fictional program (like a drama or a comedy show). CBC uses it a lot.

What are they doing wrong?   (5 of 5)

Shows that were captioned before are captioned all over again

A documentary on CBC Television might be recaptioned all over again – maybe even using live captioning – when it airs on Newsworld.

How do you know all these things are happening?

Because I’ve been taking notes on CBC and Newsworld captioning for over three years. Whenever I was naturally watching those stations, if something strange happened with captioning, I made a note in a computer file. I saved up all those notes and published them in November 2005.

What happened when you published the results?

I sent them to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. There was also a bit of coverage on blogs. The Commission promised to forward my evidence to CBC for comments. I separately sent E-mails to various people at CBC.

What was CBC’s response?   (0 of 5)

CBC eventually got around to responding to my published evidence. CBC did not disprove anything I said. In fact, in most cases they agreed with my points and claimed to be putting new procedures in place. They did, however, insist that it was just fine to use subtitling and to use real-time and scrollup captioning the way they do.

What was CBC’s response?   (1 of 5)

Outside TV commercials aren’t always captioned

I didn’t address this in my initial evidence. Everyone – including me, until recently – thought the Vlug decision said that only CBC’s own promos and commercials needed to be captioned. It does not say that. It specifically mentions commercials:

The CBC’s English-language network and Newsworld shall caption all of their television programming, including television shows, commercials, promos and unscheduled news flashes, from signon until signoff.

What was CBC’s response?   (2 of 5)

Subtitled shows usually aren’t captioned

Subtitled programming is not further captioned in normal circumstances. While some individuals may prefer more text to cover the video image, it is CBC’s view that, on balance, the marginal gain from the addition of captioning for the hearing impaired is outweighed by the additional video lost.

CBC doesn’t understand how combined captioning and subtitling works. It pretends that captioning will write out spoken words in the original language even when they are already subtitled. CBC also seems to think that captioning and subtitling are annoying because they “cover the video image.”

What was CBC’s response?   (3 of 5)

Live captioning is used on shows that aren’t live

CBC currently leaves in place the original real-time captions when programs that have been captioned in real time are repeated.

In other words, once the program has aired and is no longer live, CBC pretends it still is live. CBC just reruns the tape. Viewers must watch choppy, piecemeal captions that run three to ten seconds behind the audio, miss a lot of words, and get other words wrong, including proper names.

What was CBC’s response?   (4 of 5)

Scrollup captioning is used on dramas and comedies

This is relatively rare as most prime time programming comes to CBC complete with pop-on captions. We calculate that 63% of a typical broadcast day on the CBC main network and 80% of non-live programming are captioned with pop-on captions.

That sounds great, but in reality CBC has a policy of captioning entire series (e.g., Coronation Street and Doctor Who) in scrollup. If you like those shows, then it is 100% of the time that you must struggle to keep up with a show using scrollup captioning. (Even CBC’s numbers – 20% and 37% – are still too high.)

What was CBC’s response?   (5 of 5)

Shows that were captioned before are captioned all over again

To recaption all this programming would be prohibitively expensive without significantly increasing the value of the captioning.

It isn’t “prohibitively expensive.” CBC already has a transcribed program (with errors and omissions, but transcribed nonetheless) in scrollup format. It is a question of reformatting the captions.

How important are captioning “glitches”?

The Tribunal said that sometimes captioning would be missing because of “glitches.” It’s true: Things will occasionally happen.

But I was able to show that HBO in the United States has an internal standard of 99.999% captioning.

I have suggested this to CBC and the Human Rights Commission as a reasonable way to interpret the word “glitches.” Even if we did that, CBC still wouldn’t be complying with the requirement, since they refuse to caption most subtitled programs. Then there is the problem of misuse of live captioning and scrollup captioning.

What has CBC’s attitude been like?

Stubborn, defensive, dismissive, imperious.

What’s your experience working with CBC?

I’ve done a bit of paid work for CBC on about five occasions – writing accessibility-related reports, working on online video captioning, writing a review of Web accessibility. I don’t have a contract with CBC as I write this (August 2006) and am not in a conflict of interest.

What’s your experience with CBC captioners?

I’ve met two – a stubborn, defensive, dismissive, and imperious young woman, who has since left, and Peggy Zulauf, the oldest captioner there. Zulauf and I got along well at first. Then, in 2002, she had a meeting with me at CBC in Toronto and picked a fight. She would later tell me I would never be a candidate to train CBC captioners “not because of what you know but how you deliver it.”

I also met the head of the captioning department, Brigitte Ouellet, as part of a paid contract. Like everyone at CBC, she wouldn’t budge an inch. For example, she refused to improve captioning on one specific program because “disc space” was “tight.”

Has the CRTC been involved?

The CRTC is part of the government. It regulates broadcasting in Canada. It has not been involved in Henry Vlug’s case.

How has the Human Rights Commission acted?

They’ve done everything in their power not to investigate this proven breach of a Human Rights Tribunal ruling. At one point, my lawyer made the mistake of calling my evidence a “complaint.” Philippe Dufresne of the Commission wrote back that I hadn’t filed a complaint and that I would have to do so now – starting right back from scratch where Henry Vlug was nine years ago – if I wanted anything else to happen.

Not only is the Commission not protecting the rights of CBC viewers with disabilities, it is taking active steps to ensure it never has to punish CBC or even do a real investigation.

What’s the problem with the Human Rights Commission?

They’re probably embarrassed. A Tribunal order was ignored right under their noses – with the evidence visible to anyone who can see a TV screen – for three years. But they never noticed! Now they’re trying to use bureaucratic methods to ensure that CBC gets off scot-free.

Any other response from CBC?

Yes – their lawyer, Edith Cody-Rice, dismissed my three years’ evidence as an “informal complaint.” I consider this one of CBC’s many insults.

If I had bumped into her in the elevator and said “Hey, Edith, I was watching TV last night and I didn’t see any captioning for a while. Might want to look into that!” then yes, my “complaint” would be “informal.”

Why is the CBC being stubborn, defensive, dismissive, and imperious?

They’re like that sometimes. The CBC is constantly being accused of screwing up in one way or another. Sometimes they cave in immediately (they flinch). Other times they dig in their heels and insist that two plus two equals five, as they are doing in this case.

Has there been any press coverage of CBC captioning?

No, only on blogs. I seem to be the only person who cares enough to cover the topic.

Are you still collecting evidence?

Yup, and I am publishing it regularly. (You can even subscribe via RSS.)

I have a whole category of posts at my personal blog about CBC captioning.

What about CBC French?

They’ve got their own problems. A retired Canadian senator, Jean-Robert Gauthier, filed a human-rights complaint against Radio-Canada because of a lack of captioning. The Canadian Human Rights Commission produced quite a bad report about French-language captioning on CBC. The complaint has not been resolved yet.

What about other broadcasters?

Other broadcasters have, at most, a 90% captioning requirement. And they don’t have to caption anything in the overnight periods.

Many French-language broadcasters lied to the CRTC and claimed French-language captioning is too hard. For live programs, it is, but not for prerecorded programs. Some French-language broadcasters have lower captioning requirements for no good reason.

Have there been other complaints?

Yes. Henry Vlug later settled complaints with Global (which now captions 100% of programming, but not other things like commercials) and with CTV. The terms of the CTV settlement were not released, although two deaf organizations have the right to write about the settlement.

What does this mean for 100% captioning, all the time, everywhere in Canada?

It’s probably going to be difficult. The public broadcaster puts in money and time to fight human-rights complaints, which shouldn’t have had to be filed in the first place. Even when ordered to provide full captioning, they don’t.

If that’s the best that a public broadcaster with a billion-dollar budget can do, the future does not look good for requiring other broadcasters to caption absolutely everything. Nor does it look good when it comes to increasing audio description for the blind, a topic that deaf people pretty much don’t care about. (Deaf people pretty much don’t care about accessibility; they just want their own needs met.)

Where do we go from here?

We’ve got to get CBC Television and Newsworld into compliance by one means or another. CBC already has a lot of expertise in how to manage the workflow of a major broadcaster where every single thing has to be captioned. That knowledge, combined with complete compliance with the requirement (caption everything but “glitches”), will give us a model to use with other broadcasters.

What should the CBC do with its captioning knowledge?

Publish it. It is ridiculous that CBC has two in-house captioning manual and a wealth of experience attempting to comply with 100% captioning, but treats all that information as a secret. It’s a public broadcaster that we all pay for.

What about captioning quality?

I have a research project on that topic. In the meantime, it’s crucial to get CBC to stop misusing live captions for recorded programs and scrollup programs for dramas and comedies.

What’s the next step?

There will be a public meeting in August 2006 to talk about CBC’s experience with “100%” captioning and what it will mean for the rest of the Canadian TV networks.

Now this slideshow is at 100%!

That’s all for this slideshow. Keep watching the CBC captioning page for updates, which I publish regularly.