Note: I gave a presentation at the Deaf Way conference at Gallaudet University in 1989 on the topic of typographic requirements for captioning for HDTV. I was, of course, prescient: Everything I said we needed we do actually need, and most of it we are getting. I even predicted Unicode. By incredible coincidence, a later paper by other authors (who knew of this paper) made very similar points using very similar language. ¶ Note that this paper is over a decade old. I have no compunctions about leaving its overwritten pretentiousness intact. I’ve grown up a bit since then. The visuals accompanying the presentation are unavailable, but they’re not very important, either.
Before I begin this discussion, let me offer my thanks to the Deaf Way for hosting such a forum as this. I also owe thanks to Al Gleason and Peter Reich of the University of Toronto, without whose help I would not be here today. Interested audiencemembers will find a much more detailed version of this paper in the Deaf Way proceedings.
Let us consider the phenomenon of captioning typography. Why? Because it's fundamentally true that captioning is a typographic medium. It takes the form of written words displayed on a screen, and for that reason, we should take typographic principles into account in all our discussions of the appearance of captions.
But as I have described previously in articles on captioning typography, captioners have to mix and match older typographic idioms from print with brand-new techniques created especially for captioning. The results vary in their levels of æsthetic and communicative success; some captioning styles are better than others at communicating a soundtrack, and some captioning styles are certainly more attractive than others. We have to keep the two criteria of communicative success and æsthetic satisfaction in mind when we talk about how captions look.
In this presentation, I offer a typographic manifesto for an enlightened captioning system one designed for the high-definition television of the near future. I will describe some of the problems of today's captioning and state some possible technological solutions in the areas of fonts, linguistic capabilities, and other requirements.
The captioning technology predominant in Canada and the U.S. is the Line 21 system, a fixture of modern television since 1981. For all its utility as a basic captioning system, in the latter '80s the Line 21 system has begun to show its age. Line 21 captions are functional as a means of making TV accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but in 1989 we deserve more than mere functionality. I hope to show that the more we put into a captioning system, the more we'll get out of it. The key phrase here is: “Use your imagination.” It's usually true that what we think is possible is usually way behind what actually is possible.
But here are some specifics about Line 21 captioning. In fact, the limitations of the Line 21 technology itself have determined how our captions will look as much as the artistic choices of individual captioners. Let me show you some examples of how the captioning technology itself cramps our style. One of the crucial factors in the legibility of typefaces is the presence of descenders. Descenders are the part of some lowercase letters which hangs below the common baseline of all the characters. Here is a diagram showing what descenders are [shows an overhead slide]. The arrows point to the descender parts of the letters g, y, p, q, and j.
Lowercase letters without descenders are much less legible; unfortunately, Line 21 closed-captioning forces captioners to caption in capital letters almost all the time, since the lowercase is illegible at prolonged reading. I'm going to show you a slide now which will illustrate the poor legibility of lowercase caption type [Slide 1]. Note that the descenders on the p and g are scrunched up into the bodies of the letters instead of hanging down as readers expect. Research has verified the obvious fact that reading extended text in all-capitals is more taxing and invites more errors than upper- and lowercase text.
From a Canadian standpoint, Line 21 typography is too underpowered to deal with the linguistic reality of television. The designers of the Line 21 system were apparently unaware of the fact that TV shows in Canada and the U.S. aren't limited to the English language. Although programs in French and Spanish are commonplace on the airwaves – Canada alone has several French-language TV networks –