Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Reply comments in CRTC OTA hearings

These reply comments on the CRTC’s review of over-the-air television (Broadcasting Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 2006-5) are submitted by Joe Clark, Toronto, dated 2006.12.20. (Original comments.)

Permanent location

This intervention is permanently located at the address:

The CRTC demanded a length limit to each respondent’s reply comments – an absurdly overspecific “maximum 10 pages 12 points font” (¶12936). Twelve points of what font – Univers 45? HTML documents are not paginated and will produce varying pagecounts with different fonts and zoom settings. The CRTC may be working under the assumption that everyone uses Microsoft Word (an unpublished file format) and untagged PDF, neither of which is accessible or interoperable.

It is unrealistic to require a scant 20 pages of responses when original written comments merely on the captioning question run double that length, not to mention the 450,000 words of transcripts from the subsequent hearings. There’s some kind of error on nearly every page of testimony concerning captioning, and the CRTC makes it explicitly impossible to provide corrections beyond a pagecount its functionaries can easily flip through. In essence, intervenors have unlimited space to make specious arguments, which may then be rebutted solely within a “maximum 10 pages 12 points font.”


Caption monitoring is the problem, not a solution

In its oral hearings, Commissioners and some intervenors were all but obsessed with the issue of monitoring captioning. 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 monitor presence or absence of captioning on their own channels; in fact, it can be automated. What about captioning quality? Without researched and tested standards, how do we monitor that?
  3. 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.
  4. There’s too much programming to monitor. Tell me, who’s going to watch RDS 24/7 to monitor their captioning? Is that too easy an example? How about the weather channel? (The French weather channel?) Your televised provincial legislature? Will you watch every pay-per-view airing of popular movie? How about the entirety of the Movie Network, including the porn? We can all come up with licensed broadcasters in Canada that we wouldn’t be caught dead channel-surfing through, let alone watching nonstop.
  5. In round numbers, I have 200 channels on my digital box. Even if we imagine monitoring only the 18-hour broadcast day, that leaves 3,600 program hours a day to watch. If you assign people to four-hour shifts, some of which will start at 0600 hours, then how are we going to come up with 900 people a day to “monitor” captioning?
  6. And – again – monitor it against what standard? What if these people don’t have the literacy to actually catch a captioning error? What if you hire stone-deaf people and they miss every case of missing or incorrect captioning because they can’t hear the audio?
  7. 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.

The question of quantity of captioning has been handled by the Vlug v. CBC decision: The standard is 100% save for glitches, which, again as I have been reminding everybody, can be modelled on the HBO policy of five-nines or 99.999% reliability. The question of quantity has been handled.

Nothing less than 100% captioning save for glitches satisfies the human-rights standard, which trumps anything the CRTC would like to permit its friends the broadcasters to get away with. Of course there will be individual cases of undue hardship, as with tiny third-language broadcasters, but let’s get real here: A broadcast licence is actually a licence to print money and broadcasters as a whole have all the money they need to make their broadcasting accessible.

Independently-developed, researched, tested standards are the only viable option

The quality question can be resolved only one way: Through the independent development and testing of researched standards – and not just for captioning, but for audio description and subtitling and dubbing, too. Again as I have been reminding people for years, the Open & Closed Project can and will carry out that research and do that testing. And it’s actually happening.

Nothing else has worked so far, or else we wouldn’t be having these hearings.

The Open & Closed Project has industry support

We have signed support letters from captioning and description providers, software makers, and broadcasters in four countries.

The Open & Closed Project has grassroots support

Over 150 people made voluntary financial contributions to underwrite fundraising for Open & Closed Project, and many more have provided moral support online.

The Open & Closed Project knows all the right researchers

Not only are we on a first-name basis with all the right researchers in the accessibility field, we have verbal cooperation agreements with several of them. Researcher loyalties are not easy to shift.

Media Access Canada is unwanted and unneeded

Beverley Milligan (née Ostafichuk) has undertaken a poorly-explained process of setting up a poorly-explained organization with poorly-explained goals. At root, she advocates that the CRTC give up its legally-mandated responsibility to regulate broadcasting in Canada in the specific field of captioning (or captioning and audio description; it’s not always clear which). Milligan’s organization would “monitor” selections from all programming in Canada and, by implication, decide when some unspecified standard has been breached and issue some kind of penalty.

Milligan proposes to install herself as Canada’s one and only accessibility cop, usurping not only independent researchers, viewers with disabilities, and broadcasters but the CRTC itself. Yet she never quite comes out and tells us she is proposing exactly that. Nor does she tell us who her backers are.

Purported “needs analysis”

In her written submission, Milligan claims to have undertaken a Needs Analysis (sic) “on behalf of the National Broadcast Reading Service.” I have her original E-mails and they never mention an institutional affiliation of any kind. Nor do they mention that Milligan formerly sat on the NBRS board of directors (2003 NBRS annual report; Web listings through early 2006). (Did she quit or was she fired?) Milligan is listed as chair of the NBRS marketing committee (2005–2006 annual report).

Milligan declares that “[t]he results indicated a very strong need for the establishment” of some kind of ill-defined organization “specializing in Accessible Media.” At the CRTC hearing, she puffed up that claim considerably, stating (¶9274) that her plans were “substantiated in market research done over the last two quarters of fiscal 2006.” She claims not only that her organization already exists but that “it... has been in touch with over 450 stakeholder organization [sic].” She has never listed those organizations, an easy gesture of accountability with no personal-privacy ramifications.

In oral testimony, she implies that “this body of thinking and research from over 450 stakeholders” (¶9288) supports her plans. In fact, Milligan’s own numbers show overwhelming indifference and opposition. By her own admission in an E-mail dated 2006.08.24, fully 97.9% of previous E-mail recipients refused to support her plan. That number consists of the 89.4% of recipients of Milligan’s initial message who did not respond plus 7.5% of respondents in opposition. Milligan’s claimed “very strong need” can be more accurately stated as “massive indifference and noticeable disagreement.”

Funding through sponsorships

In any event, Milligan proposes that 100% captioning should be obtained through sponsorships, a legally untenable notion that makes the established legal rights of people with disabilities subject to advertiser whim. (“We’ll accommodate your disability if we can get an advertiser to pay for it.”) Milligan admits that her own efforts to sell caption sponsorships were a failure – her previous company “lost all of its contracts” when broadcasters used caption sponsorships as “a profit opportunity.” Here Milligan admits that caption sponsorships do not actually increase captioning quality or quantity.

The idea that broadcasters would pay Milligan’s organization to rat them out when their captions crash for five minutes is ridiculous, but that really is what she proposes (she “believes the industry itself should fund... [her] operations and monitoring initiates [sic]”).

The fuzzy role of Milligan’s organization

In her testimony at the Commission’s hearing, Milligan could barely give straight answers to questions.

She does not explain how “measurement and accountability is [sic] the beginning of improved quality” (¶9288) while the research and testing of actual standards couldn’t be. She does, however, propose that “maybe what we want to do... is third-party it out [sic] to some independent research organization” (¶9359). I take this as an endorsement of the Open & Closed Project, since, true to Milligan’s word, we will remain independent, particularly of her.

What Milligan does not reveal

For reference, here are a few things Milligan isn’t telling us:

The CRTC’s obligations

The Commission has already attempted to offload its legal obligation to regulate broadcasting onto the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, a proposition that met with near-total rejection. The CRTC may tempted again to delegate its authority – this time to a vapourware organization that almost nobody wants in the first place. In light of all the foregoing facts, this is a temptation to be resisted.

Response to written comments

Shorter Alliance Atlantis

The overt form of captioning is merely “style,” like lipstick on a cow. Broadcasters can do anything they want with “style” and viewers should have no recourse whatsoever.

Shorter CanWest Global and Corus


Other submissions


The document concisely entitled “Requested technical and operational information related to the provision of closed captioning by Canadian private broadcasters,” by Jon Medline and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, is a superficial and often inaccurate and off-topic treatment of the issues it claims to address.

CanWest Global and Corus

It will be of interest to media-watchers to note that the captioning sections of the submissions by CanWest Global and Corus are effectively identical, as though the two companies collaborated on wording before an unannounced merger or acquisition.

Corus’s submission, while functionally identical to Global’s, has a few distinct malapropisms.


French-language broadcasters are contemptuous of captioning, and no matter how hard they try, broadcasting executives never quite manage to hide that fact. TQS claims that only French-language broadcasters should set captioning standards. For this task and for the task of assessing errors, we should continue to wait. I’m sure that will work out about as well as it did for the English-language broadcasters they also mention. Broadcasters are not neutral or independent parties and are provably uninterested in writing and testing standards based on evidence and research, which is what we actually need.


CBC has the temerity to quote passages on captioning from the Lincoln report (Standing Committee on Canadian [not “Cultural”] Heritage, Our Cultural Sovereignty). Those passages were adapted almost verbatim from my evidence to that committee. This is a rather flagrant insult even by CBC standards.

CBC has a 100%-captioning requirement that I proved they were not meeting. I assembled three years of evidence, published it, and submitted it to the CBC and the Canadian Human Rights Commission. CBC’s lawyer could not disprove any of my evidence but imperiously dismissed three years of work as an “informal complaint.” Then CBC has the gall to quote back my own words as reasons not to provide the 100% captioning that is legally required.

CBC is obsessed with mere error rates – a typical preoccupation of captioning neophytes, who simply cannot get past the question of accuracy of transcription. Just to arrive at a way to calculate errors, CBC contends, would “represent a considerable undertaking for both the Commission and the broadcasting industry.” Those are the last people we need doing it. This “considerable undertaking” – actually the task of developing and testing standards – is what the Open & Closed Project wishes, with gusto, to take on and is our raison d’être. What CBC thinks is too onerous to do we hunger to do.

TVO, TFO, and Knowledge Network

Alliance Atlantis

By the way, Alliance’s vaunted “flexibility” in captioning leads it to recaption – using scrollup – programming that was already captioned. A case in point is Alien, a movie with three other sets of pop-up captions already in existence that Alliance dumbly recaptioned with extruded scrolling text when aired on IFC.

Television image with IFC logotype shows a spacecraft and two-line caption reading the Solomons, registration number 180924609. Nothing.


The Canadian Association of the Deaf merits praise for refraining, for once, from demanding that the government pay CAD to act as perpetual captioning overlords.


Response to CRTC hearings

During a week of hearings, the CRTC could never quite get its act together to ask broadcasters their opinions about independently-developed accessibility standards that are based on evidence and research and are tested in the real world. The CRTC kept acting as though the Open & Closed Project didn’t exist and the previous system of broadcasters colluding in secret to write down their existing practices is the sort of thing that needs to happen again.

Industry agrees that common standards are necessary

Witnesses appearing at the hearing showed they were open to the development of standards. Commissioners’ loaded questions attempted to tilt the balance toward industry self-regulation, but not everybody took the bait. To quote only a few paragraphs (numbers as in original), starting with a question that was posed over and over again in different guises to many intervenors:

LE PRÉSIDENT: Un des problèmes qui est bien identifié, c’est que... Radio-Canada a sa propre politique de normalisation, et vos concurrents comme TVA et TQS ont les leurs, donc, il n’y a pas de règles communes de l’industrie pour avoir des normes universelles.... Il ne serait pas pertinent qu’il y ait un comité multipartite qui comprenne à la fois l’ensemble des télédiffuseurs... qui diffusent en langue française pour travailler et pour mettre en place des normes communes? [...] Est-ce qu’il n’y aurait pas possibilité d’avoir une activité commune qui permettrait, effectivement, de régler peut-être, une fois pour toutes, cette question de normalisation...? Ne croyez-vous pas qu’il y aurait place pour que tout le monde se réunisse sous le même parapluie pour organiser et essayer de revoir toute la normalisation parce que c’est dans le cadre d’une discussion qu’on avait sur la normalisation des règles de sous-titrage en français...? [¶¶384, 387, 12813]
  1. M. LAFRANCE: Je peux vous dire qu’il y a déjà des discussions en cours. Dans ce domaine-là, on n’est pas concurrent, en tout cas. Il y a déjà, donc, des discussions en cours. Effectivement, tout le monde veut améliorer l’affaire. [¶388]

  2. M. GUÉRIN: Oui, nous sommes tout à fait d’accord que ce serait pertinent. Il y avait déjà eu des démarches préliminaires auprès de différents télédiffuseurs... Mais je pense qu’une fois que ce travail-là aura été fait et qu’il y aura un cahier de normes acceptées par l’industrie.... [¶¶1033, 1043]

  3. LE PRÉSIDENT: [T]out le monde a son propre code.

    M. TRÉPANIER: Oui. Évidemment, on est convaincu d’avoir le meilleur.

    — Il vous reste à convaincre les autres.

    — Oui. Voilà! Et vous allez probablement nous aider. [¶¶2970–2973]

  4. M. McNICOLL: Depuis deux ans, j’essaie de créer un comité, un genre de comité de consultation avec les télédiffuseurs pour qu’on puisse marcher main dans la main au développement des outils de sous-titrage en direct.... Alors, il serait important de faire vraiment un comité d’étude sur l’évaluation de la qualité du sous-titrage parce que 95% des plaintes que je reçois c’est basé juste sur la qualité du sous-titrage. [¶¶12816, 12875]

And the same question in English:

COMMISSIONER DUNCAN: The commission is aware that broadcasters use various captioning standards. Would it be possible for all the English broadcasters to work together on developing and implementing a universal captioning standard? And such a working group could also propose concrete solutions, hopefully with respect to other quality concerns such as errors and misspelled captions and technical problems. And if so, which organization in your view, should be responsible for coordinating such a working group? Which group or organization do you think would be best to make responsible or to take charge of such a project? You are open? [¶¶2225–2227, 3981]
  1. MR. BRACE: [...] I think that it’s entirely realistic that we do that and working with the captioning companies, quite frankly. [¶2228]

  2. MS de WILDE: We are open. [...] Moi, je pense que ce serait une très bonne idée de s’associer avec des autres diffuseurs qui ont les mêmes problèmes. Donc, je vais apporter cette suggestion à mon équipe à Toronto. [¶¶3982, 4070]

  3. COMMISSIONER CUGINI: You know that the CAB, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, has established closed captioning standards. Were you consulted during that process? [¶11733]

    MR. ROOTS: Yes, I was involved in that. [...] We felt that what they came up with at that time was adequate; not completely satisfactory, but it was adequate. I have three problems with those guidelines as they stand now. [...] Those guidelines were actually voluntary.... There was no enforcement.... Some of the broadcasters weren’t involved – for example, CBC – which meant that those guidelines did not apply across the board. [...] It is my personal preference that I would like to see a third discussion – set of standards set up, and that would be a group to monitor the captioning, because there is absolutely no power behind it. [¶¶11734, 11738–11747, 11749]

Other oral testimony

Check the original transcripts (days 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and especially 7) for the paragraphs cited below.

  1. ¶171: Robert Rabinovitch needs to realize that “each broadcaster achiev[ing] these objectives in different ways and to a different extent” is antithetical to the establishment of tested and researched standards. He essentially authorizes every broadcaster, including his own, to do what they do now: Whatever they want.
  2. ¶¶372, 376: The Vlug v. CBC ruling did not exempt outside commercials, as is commonly believed. CBC executives come off as sounding somehow proud of the fact that they caption everything except outside commercials. First of all, they don’t caption 100% of that remainder, and second of all, they have to caption the outside commercials too. The Vlug decision required 100% captioning save for glitches. It did not require 100% save for commercials. CBC is in noncompliance with the ruling and has been since it took effect.
  3. ¶374: Advertisers may want to control “where they want the captioning positioned,” but this is the sort of thing to which the correct response is a firm no. Advertisers don’t get to make up as many captioning standards as they want.
  4. ¶377: If a commercial gets delivered “at the absolute last minute” without captions, it can’t go to air under the Vlug decision and under any régime of 100% captioning. A commercial delivered uncaptioned isn’t a “glitch,” it’s a knowing failure. (Cf. ¶¶2965, 3536.)
  5. ¶380: CBC wants us to believe that all the French stenocaptionists (all five of them?) go to bed spot on 11:00 and can’t be called upon to caption the late sportscast. Well, try paying them more, or telling them they’re fired unless they work the evening shift one night a week.
  6. ¶¶389–390, 3991, 12804–12807: It is rather galling, but not really surprising, that the CRTC and the CBC think they can just import captions from France with no problem. France uses PAL and teletext; we use NTSC and Line 21. Can anyone explain why this should be news to broadcasting executives and a broadcast regulator?
  7. ¶395: If Canada and France want to have un système unique, then adopt the same researched and tested standard, with a common file format. In other words, sign on to the Open & Closed Project.
  8. ¶1018: Quebecor acts as though it is impossible to caption a network’s own publicity spots. Funnily enough, CBC Television and Newsworld manage it. (Cf. ¶2966.) Perhaps Quebecor just doesn’t want to do it and isn’t honest enough to say so? (Or because they don’t want to pay for it [¶1019]? Being tight with your millions isn’t legally tenable, as the actual standard is accommodation short of undue hardship.)
  9. ¶1035: If it’s too early to set error rates for captioning, perhaps it isn’t too early to set and test actual standards that would reduce or eliminate errors.
  10. ¶1654: Global confuses length of submission with accuracy and relevance, both of which were scarce in its submission.
  11. ¶1657: 100% captioning save for glitches – that is, the HBO standard of five-nines or 99.999% captioning – is demonstrably achievable.
  12. ¶1660: Does Global really believe that the hundreds of captioned commercials it airs every year have a problem with “covering up legal language”? What do they think has been going on for the last 20 years – one commercial after another that obscures necessary onscreen graphics? If so, why did they wait till a politically expedient moment (a CRTC hearing) to bring it up?
  13. ¶1662: If “most of the programming” comes in already captioned, why does Global run captioning-sponsorship ads, especially on those programs?
  14. ¶1666: On what basis did Global decide on a 98% accuracy level and the definition of accuracy? Did it do any research and testing, or did nonexperts at Global and its second-rate captioning shop decide that two wrong words out of every hundred added up to a perfectly fine way to accommodate viewers with disabilities?
  15. ¶1668: How can a broadcaster “for the most part” follow a claimed “standard” like CAB’s? At what point does it fail to be an actual standard? (Do Global executives drive on the right-hand side of the road “for the most part”?)
  16. ¶1669: We’ve got better things to be talking about than three- vs. two-line scrollup captions. Why don’t we start with Global’s overuse of scrollup captioning?
  17. ¶2218: If CTV takes captioning seriously, why did it hire a vendor – with no phone-book listing or Web site – that miscaptions every show, every single one, in centred scrollup? What evidence can CTV tender that it did not shop on price?
  18. ¶2224: Why did CTV use the right-wing catchphrase “special-interest groups” to dismiss those who campaign for the full accommodation of viewers with disabilities? A complaint-driven system doesn’t work, but would CTV really prefer to receive complaints from every viewer with a disability in Canada, or just from a few “groups” and individuals?
  19. ¶2958: How can a broadcasting executive appear before the CRTC, with considerable advance warning that captioning was to be discussed, yet not know what percentage of his networks’ programming is captioned?
  20. ¶2976: The current complaint-driven system manifestly fails to work. It’s difficult to file a complaint, the show is long gone by that time, and we get nothing but platitudes from the networks and the CRTC (Cf. ¶12829). As an issuer of such platitudes, of course Quebecor wants the existing system to continue. Any other system, like one that is based on researched and tested standards, might cost an extra dime.
  21. ¶2979: What is the Réseau québécois des malentendants? Who’s their leader?
  22. ¶3543: If you trained your staff, based on available tested standards, wouldn’t it cease to be “a huge challenge” to caption local promos?
  23. ¶3968: Did TVO really wish to testify before the Commission that it finds foreign programming difficult to caption? (Evidently not: TVO uses scrollup almost exclusively.) What “technology base solution” is TVO waiting for in order to caption live programming? How about the stenocaptioning it already uses?
  24. ¶11667: Former senator Jean-Robert Gauthier’s human-rights complaint was hardly “successful.” It did not result in more real-time captioning and elicited a guarantee to hire only three more real-time writers.
  25. ¶11681: Spanish programs do have Spanish captions – in the U.S. Why isn’t anybody asking why we don’t see that captioning in Canada, or why Spanish-language programming aired in Canada isn’t captioned in any respect?
  26. ¶11691: Impossible. On-air graphics do not cover up captions; captions are locally generated in the TV set or receiver. They’re the final graphic element that overlays everything else. It is possible that adding a bug or a crawl could displace Line 21, thereby eliminating captions altogether, but this is seldom seen. He’s really trying to say that captions cover the graphics, which, for the umpteenth time, can be solved with a data bridge.
  27. ¶11694: “New digital captioning technology” has no bearing on full-screen placement of captions, which we can already do.
  28. ¶¶11698–11702: Real-time captions always lag behind dialogue. What does he expect?
  29. ¶11704: To ask a hearing person to watch TV with no sound is unrealistic. Hearing people are not deaf and shouldn’t pretend to be. And, as Jim Roots knows perfectly well, not every deaf person is stone deaf. Hearing people who watch captioning with no audio will miss important events, like completely-uncaptioned or miscaptioned dialogue and sound effects. It is a flagrantly unrealistic proposition. Rita Cugini (¶¶11731, 11765) should know better than to sign on to such a plan. Then again, she should have been watching captions for the entire time she worked in the broadcast sector and later, inevitably, became a CRTC commissioner. (She worked in broadcasting and now works for the CRTC, but only knows captioning from bars and health clubs?)
  30. ¶11721: Caption size on iPods and other handheld devices has already been knowledgeably discussed by an activity of the Open & Closed Project. Captions are not and don’t have to be too small.
  31. ¶12712: Which exact “privileged” status do CQDA and RQST seek in discussing French live captioning?
  32. ¶12737 inter alia: The French for “audio description” is description sonore, not audiovision. (Do users of that term even know what they are referring to?)
  33. ¶12738: I fail to see how CRIM is qualified to study audio description.
  34. At ¶12748, have we not been given a citation of an existing standard by which to measure inaccuracy of transcription – the NIST specification that was mentioned? (It would help to have the actual reference number.)
  35. ¶12761: Nobody is seriously talking about using voice recognition to caption tone languages – yet. We cannot caption in Chinese script in Line 21 or on HDTV. (Chinese-language newscasts are captioned in Singapore.)
  36. ¶12788: We won’t have a research and tested standard in place by 2008.09.01; the proposed deadline is too early.
  37. ¶12795: Everyone seems to forget that there are at least two existing technologies for French stenotypy. There isn’t just one.
  38. ¶¶12828, 12835: A monitoring committee would be a recapitulation of the problem, not a solution. Standards are the solution.
  39. ¶¶12832–12833: Again, onscreen type cannot block captioning, which sits on top of everything else. I’ve watched the Radio-Canada newscast and seen no caption blockage at all.
  40. ¶12841: CRIM presents itself as a research organization, which it surely is. But another document from CRIM envisaged spinning off a business to provide live captioning. Some offshoot of CRIM is proposed as an actual captioner. An honest and fulsome explanation of CRIM’s plans would throw light on the divide between research and business.
  41. ¶12863: We don’t need an entire research program to train software to detect pauses in dialogue that could then be used for audio description. It already exists in software (like Adept by Softel) and is a trivial achievement. Description doesn’t always occur during pauses in dialogue; besides, the recording process is where the bulk of the effort lies. I know; I’ve sat in on audio-description recording sessions.
  42. ¶12883: The question of source of programs has little or no bearing on captioning. The program comes in, you caption it. It doesn’t matter where it comes from.
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