Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Intervention in Broadcasting Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 2006-3 (YTV; Food Network)

This intervention in Broadcasting Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 2006-3, by Joe Clark of Toronto, is dated 2006.04.06. This intervention concerns YTV and Food Network Canada. The true text of the intervention is found at the following address only:

The Commission has a habit of altering interventions, as by removing notations of URLs and changing the file type of documents. These modifications are surely a contravention of the moral right of the author under the Copyright Act. Nonetheless, only the canonical URL listed above may be considered definitive.

Concealment of documents

The CRTC has a long history of ignoring allegations of nepotism, conflict of interest, and collusion with its regulated broadcasters arising from the fact that Commissioners frequently come from the broadcasting sector, or end up there later, or even, as in the current case, end up as Minister of Canadian Heritage. The Commission has brought itself to a new low by permitting the applicants, among several other applicants for different processes underway at the same time, to conceal relevant documents behind the closed doors of the applicant’s own offices.

Any member of the public, including competitors, who wished to learn the actual details of the applications had no choice whatsoever but to schlep across town, if they happened to be lucky enough to live in the right town, or schlep to another town just to read documents that could and should have been posted on the Web.

I petitioned the Chair on 2006.03.23 to force the applicants in this and other proceedings to publish documents online, to require all applicants to do so in the future, and to extend the current deadline. Again fully true to form, the Chair simply ignored the petition.

The current process could not be considered one of public consultation. The closest historical model is that of a show trial: Documents are kept secret in certain locations, and a hearing is held in another location. The only parties who could realistically participate in this process are the Commission, the applicants, and the applicants’ multi-million-dollar corporate competitors.

Despite all the foregoing, I have no doubt that the Commission will find a way to surpass this new low, most likely in the actual decision on the applications in question.

Conflict of interest

Commissioner Rita Cugini worked at Alliance Atlantis, owner of one of the broadcasting licences being renewed, and thus has a conflict of interest. She must recuse herself from consideration of Food Network’s renewal.


I oppose renewal of the licences for YTV and Food Network without the imposition of stringent requirements for captioning and audio description. In particular, YTV has to stop using scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming; Food Network has to learn how to do scrollup captioning vaguely correctly; and both networks have to significantly increase their quantity of audio description.


Let me cut to the chase here. YTV is one of the many cheapskate Canadian broadcasters that fundamentally dislike captioning, hate paying for it, can’t tell good captioning from bad, don’t watch captioned shows, and have no knowledge whatsoever of history or practice in the field. The difference is that YTV cheaps out on a grand scale even by the standards of Canadian broadcasters, who never found a penny spent on accessibility they couldn’t split into half a penny.

YTV’s lineup of juvenile shows for juvenile viewers is top-heavy with Japanese anime and other productions that arrive without captions on the doorstep of this arm of a multi-million-dollar broadcasting incumbent. The choice then is one of sending the program out for captioning or doing it in-house. From what I can tell, absolutely all of YTV’s (and Treehouse’s) in-house captioning is scrollup. I’m prepared to be off by a few percentage points here; perhaps the occasional show has pop-on captions. But really, the rule is to use scrollup captions.

In fact, I did a check on the evening of 2006.04.05. Of 13 programs with caption credits, six used pop-on captioning (none by YTV or Corus) and seven used scrollup captioning. Six of the seven bore the legend CLOSED CAPTIONING PROVIDED BY CORUS ENTERTAINMENT or BY YTV CANADA INC.; the seventh was by NCI. Yes, that does mean that 100% of Corus- or YTV-captioned programming used scrollup, and all shows sampled were fictional narrative programming.

I’m just trying to imagine the work environment for a second. If you’re like other Canadian broadcasters, you boast that your captioners have university degrees in allegedly relevant disciplines like English lit. While this qualifies the captioners to write turgid papers about Dickens or DeLillo, it says nothing about their ability to transcribe English dialogue according to captioning norms. Captioning is probably the only job they could get with such a degree, and they’re probably young women in their mid-20s. Let’s just accept all that for a moment, even though the low qualifications necessary to get a job in Canadian captioning and the pink-collar homogeneity of the business are cause for concern.

You go to work every day and you’re stuck transcribing juvenile shows for juvenile viewers. You can’t even really engage with the show, because you work at a sausage factory that extrudes identical line of text after identical line of text, scrolling endlessly and illegibly across and up the screen forevermore. Your job reminds you of operating a caulking gun, or perhaps of braiding rugs. It’s just one line of extruded text after another all day long.

But boy, is the whole process cheap. Doing pop-on captioning for a show takes three to four times as long. You might work two full days on a 24-minute episode, for heaven’s sake – and who the hell wants to put that much work into anime? At your gross salary of approximately $11 an hour, that might cost the network $150 to caption the whole show. While this pales in comparison to executive BlackBerry bills, it’s obviously a huge expenditure.

But scrollup? You can whip through that in a single shift. It’s half the cost at most. It’s win-win for YTV: They get to claim conformance to their captioning requirements while spending the least money possible.

Deficiencies with scrollup captioning

There are, I must report, a couple of problems with this method.

  1. You can’t understand the program. It is simply impossible to follow a fictional narrative program through scrollup captions. Really, try it sometime.

    • The pacing’s impossible (there is no pacing; lines scroll endlessly and uniformly).
    • You can’t tell who’s talking just by looking, since you aren’t looking at the picture in the first place (you can’t; you’ll miss a caption) and captions are not positioned. You might have to put up with reading an explicit ID for every speaker, as though this were a printed screenplay, which rather interrupts the flow of dialogue. (They aren’t really saying each other’s names at the beginning of each utterance.) More likely, no speakers are identified at all.
    • If captions have to move to avoid covering the action (which, at an invariant three or two lines of full-measure text at a time, they will), then you may have to reread the last line, or there may be another speaker ID to read.
    • Combined captions and subtitles are impossible, since there’s no such thing as a scrollup captioner who can pace the display of captions to avoid covering up titles. You need pinpoint accuracy, which by definition you don’t have: It takes up to half a of a second to display a single line of scrollup text, and that’s at the fastest imaginable speed, not the speed actually used on a program.
    • Saccadic reading is pretty much shot, since your eye’s fixations are constrained by text manifesting itself one line at a time. (Not sure what saccades and fixations are? You’re using them right now.)
  2. Scrollup captioning defies decades-long practice. Scrollup captioning didn’t even exist before Line 21 captioning was invented. The only captions I ever saw up to that point were pop-on (or pop-up). Scrollup captioning has typically been used for programs where there isn’t enough time to edit, design, position, and time pop-up captions, including:

    • live programs captioned via stenography
    • programs captioned using ENR/teleprompter live-display captions
    • programming completed too close to deadline for any caption service provider to produce pop-on captions
  3. Scrollup captioning is not authorized by existing style manuals. No style manual in my possession authorizes the use of scrollup captions for fictional narrative programming.

    • The CAB captioning manual, itself a textbook example of what not to do when devising an accessibility standard, comes as close as it ever does to banning such practice (emphasis added):

      Off-line pop-on captions... are the only type of captions well suited to dramas, sitcoms, movies, and music videos, and they are therefore recommended for these types of programming.... Off-line roll-up captions are not well suited to dramas, sitcoms, movies, children’s programs, or music videos, and their use for these types of programming is discouraged.

    • The Caption Center Manual of Style limits use of scrollup captions to “programs produced very close to airtime or produced live.” (A later clarification states “The rules we have are unwritten and usually involve a discussion between marketing and the client. We have tried to hold a line that says comedies and dramas should be pop-on; news material, documentaries, talk shows, etc. can be roll-up. The gray area in-between frequently comes down to turnaround time and cost.”)
    • Even the outdated and misguided CCDA style guide (submitted in a letter of 1995.01.04 from Beverley Ostafichuk, Canada Caption Inc., under Public Notice CRTC 1994-18) declares: “Traditionally, roll-up captions are used only for live captioning, and offline work is done with pop-on captions.”
    • Captioning Key: Preferred Styles and Standards (Captioned Films/Videos Program, National Association of the Deaf, 1995) flatly states: “The CFV program requires pop-on captions.”
    • The U.K. Ofcom Guidance on Standards for Subtitling limits scrollup captions to real-time stenography:

      The use of scrolling word-by-word captions for live news can present particular difficulties, especially in the area of retention of information. It is not just a problem of speed, but that the text placed upon moving lines is working against the readers’ natural reading strategy.... During an unscripted live broadcast... the subtitles must be composed, entered, formatted and transmitted in a single pass through the program.

    • The Australian Television Broadcasting Services (Digital Conversion) Act 1998 Draft Captioning Standards don’t even mention scrollup captioning, presumably because it is axiomatic that the method would be used purely for live events and programs completed close to airdate.
    • The only book currently in print on subtitling (Ivarsson and Carroll 1998) states that neither scrolling nor crawling

      systems can be recommended (except possibly where a live subtitling is being broadcast for the hard-of-hearing). The problem with moving text is that the eye concentrates on the text while waiting for the word or phrase to finish and is thus prevented from seeing what is happening in the picture. This does not matter very much if the picture is only showing the news presenter, but if the images are conveying important information, such fixation on the text is disastrous.

      People who are used to this system may say that in time you learn to move the eye upwards, take in the picture for a moment and then look down again to read some more of the text. But in that case, what is the advantage of a scrolled system over the “quieter” traditional system?

The foregoing is known as evidence, as contrasted with YTV’s opinion. Based purely on the existing evidence, the use of scrollup captions for fictional narrative programs should be prohibited in all cases save for emergencies. But YTV never faces that kind of emergency. Its programming arrives well in advance. Even a fast-turnaround show can be captioned with pop-ons if more than one person works on it (a typical scenario with U.S. captioners). If a program arrives very late and scrollup captioning cannot be avoided, later repeats of the program can use pop-on captioning. (Yes, caption it twice.)

I issue a challenge to YTV to justify its usage of scrollup captioning on any basis other than cost. Really, try to surprise me here. And I say again: You can’t bring up cost as a criterion. You’re already earning enough money to merit a 90% captioning requirement. The CRTC has stated in several previous licence renewals (e.g., Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2005-83) that “the cost of offering closed captioning is part of the expense of holding a broadcasting licence.” Since you haven’t been reducing audio or video quality the way you’ve been going cheap with captioning, it will be hard to argue that scrollup captioning is one of many across-the-board cost-cutting measures. So tell me, without recourse to a cost argument, how do you defend the use of nothing but scrollup captioning?

Does YTV also legitimately contend, on the record, that scrollup captioning is just as good as pop-on captioning for fictional narrative programming? On what basis? (Please cite your research evidence.) If it’s really just as good, then why is any pop-on captioning permitted on the network? It could simply be replaced by cheap scrollup captioning, after all.

Regulatory framework

The use of scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming is merely the latest example of broadcasters’ contempt for accessibility and their rampant fever to shave every cent possible off the cost of it. (Remember, YTV is run by the same corporation that tried to argue that certain programming on Treehouse should not be captioned and nothing should ever be described.) When broadcasters want to cheap out, why is it always viewers with disabilities who suffer? Why aren’t executive perks scaled back, or Category 2 digital channels suspended?

The use of scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming is an absolute scourge on the Canadian broadcasting system. The Commission will be unaware that broadcasters:

Ban the use of scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming

I want the use of scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming banned save for genuine emergencies, and even then, later repeat broadcasts must use pop-on captions. I make such a petition now.

The CRTC is well positioned to impose such a requirement. After a great deal of patient reiteration of what it should have known already, the Commission finally began to understand the medium it nominally regulates and, in Public Notice CRTC 1995-48, it accepted reality and dictated that broadcasters – all of them, not just the rich ones – must use “either real-time captioning or another technology capable of producing high-quality captioning for live programming.”

Different manners of preparation and presentation of captioning are not equivalent or interchangeable or of equal value. There is such a thing as lousy captioning. Electronic newsroom reporting (ENR) captioning for live news is one such example. Scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming is another.

Accordingly, I petition the Commission to prohibit YTV from using scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming. I further petition the Commission to warn other broadcasters that, upon license acquisition or renewal, a similar prohibition shall be imposed. (Such a warning does not preclude the filing of complaints against individual broadcasters in the meantime.)

The Commission is not really in a position to state that it would be inappropriate to impose such a prohibition. It’s already been done and it was the Commission that did it. The Commission has broad powers to impose orders to uphold the letter and spirit of the Broadcasting Act, and has used those powers before to ban electronic newsroom captioning.

Now, since CRTC commissioners don’t watch captioning and couldn’t imagine doing so for more than a few minutes at a time; don’t like captioning in the first place; have trouble differentiating it from subtitling («sous-titrage»); and tend to come from, or end up in, the very same broadcasting sector they claim to “regulate,” I have no illusions that the Commission will jump at the chance to make broadcasters spend a penny more than they have to or do something they dislike. So, if the Commission does not fancy the prospect of doing again what it had done already, let me offer another option.

Prohibit counting scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming against captioning quotas

In this alternate scenario, broadcasters might use scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming, but would be prohibited from counting those hours of programming toward their captioning requirements. Unimaginable, you say? Hardly: That’s what the Americans do already in a related context. In an Order on Reconsideration of MM Docket No. 95-176, dated September 17, 1998, the Federal Communications Commission agreed with intervenors that ENR captioning is inferior to real-time captioning for live news. It also agreed that ENR captioning is better than nothing some of the time. To strike a balance, the FCC ruled that larger broadcasters could use ENR but couldn’t count it toward their required captioning hours. The Order, at ¶39, states that:

the four major national broadcast networks (i.e., ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC), broadcast stations affiliated with these networks in the top 25 television markets..., and nonbroadcast networks serving 50% or more of the total number of multichannel video programming distributor... households... will not be allowed to count ENR[-]captioned programming toward compliance with captioning requirements.

The CRTC has the legislative authority to impose an analogous requirement concerning the use of scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming. It’s easy to state: You can use it but you can’t count it.


Again, I am not naïve and I am aware of the apoplexy with which this proposition will be greeted. It will be met with all the vehemence and horror of a chemical manufacturer’s being asked to reduce its effluent toxicity by a fraction of a percent. All I can say is: Get a grip. You’ve got an effluent problem, too.

Broadcasters are earning money hand over fist, yet they always seem to find a new way to cheap out with captioning. This has to end. Since broadcasters have no hesitation to sink money into improvements to picture (as by HDTV) and sound (as by 5.1 soundtracks), not only is it nonsensical to use the cheapest possible captioning, it is arguably illegal under the Canadian Human Rights Act, which, at §5(b), states that it is a discriminatory practice “to differentiate adversely in relation to any individual.” Do broadcasters, including YTV, really think they could prevail in a human-rights complaint alleging that lousy captioning, including the use of scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming, really is not adverse differentiation?


If YTV is tempted to counter that they’ve received few, if any, complaints about their captioning, well:

What is the Commission good for, I ask? These captioning deficiencies are readily viewable at any time on an Ottawa cable system.

And here’s another question for the Commission. If you aren’t willing to prohibit the use of scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming, are you willing to declare on the record that such captioning is equivalent to, and just as good as, pop-on captioning? How would you justify such a statement given that you already rejected the idea of absolute equivalence and interchangeability of captioning methods – ten years ago, in fact?

Are you willing to go further and require the use of scrollup captioning across the board?

The Commission, staffed as it is by hearing people, has repeatedly published a claim that organizations representing deaf and hard-of-hearing people are the only ones with a valid opinion on captioning. (It’s odd how often the Commission accepts the opinions of broadcasters, all of whom are also hearing people. But consistency is not the Commission’s strong suit.) Does the Commission really believe that deaf and hard-of-hearing groups would in any way endorse the use of scrollup captioning for fictional narrative programming?

Food Network

I admit I don’t understand the worldview of Alliance Atlantis’s “head of the Condition of Broadcast License Closed-Captioning Department,” Heather Jewell (as described in her Wikipedia entry). I was granted an audience with her in 2002. I pretty much got yelled at for most of 45 minutes, but I do recall her mentioning that a series on notable gardens was too beautiful to use scrollup captioning.

Years later, Jewell would ask my advice on colour captioning. She would also be quite dismissive about her department’s misuse of mixed-case captioning (yes, such a thing is possible). I am not really sure that Jewell is in a position to deny my expertise on captioning, even in the details, under the guise of reasonable disagreement or some other wishy-washy nonsense. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, after all, and she came to me for advice.

My objection in the current license renewal deals with Alliance’s near-complete misunderstanding of the norms of scrollup captioning. Last year, when they were still mired in the early 1980s and using all caps (a lesson YTV could also unlearn), at least Alliance did some things right. Here’s what they’re doing wrong now:

  1. Next to no speaker identification, even of offscreen speakers like narrators. Speaker IDs are rendered in mixed case, making them near-indistinguishable from surrounding text. (Speaker identification in scrollup captioning is indeed difficult. It’s one reason not to use scrollup.)
  2. No capitalization of some proper names, including “god” and “lord” (sic).
  3. Writing numerals below 10 as numerals, even if they begin a sentence (2). Writing ordinals as numerals plus affixes, even if they begin a sentence or are an entire sentence (2nd).
  4. Failure to start each sentence on a new line. I’m always surprised that Canadian broadcasters manage to find a new low each successive year; I suppose I shouldn’t be, because this is one of them. Alliance seems to believe that people on TV speak in an uninterrupted and unmodulated stream, with no pauses between sentences. Such a belief is easy to disprove, particularly on decorating and cooking shows, where the presenter may pronounce a sentence, do what the sentence says, then pronounce another sentence a few seconds later. In Alliance’s new methods, both utterances are jammed together.
  5. Almost no discernible attempt to render non-speech information.
  6. No captioning credit at show opening or closing, which makes it impossible to file a complaint, if that were even practicable.

I don’t understand, at all, what Jewell’s department is trying to do here. Save a fraction of a cent by not pressing Return between sentences? Saving a letter here and there by not writing numbers? The Commission should also be aware that Alliance is using this same method of scrollup captioning on fictional narrative programming on its other networks, so if we don’t nip it in the bud fast, Alliance will be able to waltz into a hearing in coming years claiming there’s no problem with it. There are, in fact, tons of problems.

Food Network airs few, if any, fictional narrative programs. Such programming may not use scrollup captioning. What I want from the rest of the network is basic competence.

Audio description

I think we’re all getting a bit tired of the biases of CRTC mandarins, who have always believed that captioning for deaf viewers may be provided only under certain circumstances and who now believe that audio description for blind viewers, a technique they consistently misname, may be provided only under extremely rare circumstances. Quite in defiance of the Broadcasting Act, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and the Charter, the Commission has begrudgingly authorized two to four hours a week of audio description, up to half of which can be repeats, on a small handful of channels in Canada. While this is tantamount to telling wheelchair users they can visit a selection of buildings for two hours a day, it is the sort of thing that CRTC commissioners delude themselves into believing is adequate for a constitutional democracy in the 21st century.

Both applicants will argue that they should be exempt from any requirement to run an accessible service. Though both applicants, aided and abetted by the CRTC, have deliberately concealed their renewal documents from public view, I assume that YTV will argue that young viewers can’t understand description (that will be news to viewers of dozens of children’s shows described in the U.S. and on CBC), and that Food Network programs are often so thoroughly narrated that they can be understood without description (so why not run them with sound only and no picture?). These arguments are nonsense. So are any arguments that these exceedingly rich broadcasters should get a pass when it comes to accessibility.

The CRTC’s approach to audio description has been incorrect and faulty from the outset. The Commission is loath to admit it ever makes a mistake, but this might be an occasion to demonstrate some integrity. If nothing less than 90% captioning, even if the captioning is lousy, is deemed acceptable for deaf viewers, why is a single-digit percentage of described programming for blind viewers deemed acceptable?

I petition the Commission to require both networks to provide audio description, as it is correctly known, of 90% of their broadcast day by the end of the license term. As that will be sometime in 2013 and audio description first aired in volume in the late 1980s, both broadcasters will have had a reasonable head start. They will, moreover, have enjoyed many years of skimming profits off an inaccessible broadcasting service, monies that can now be directed to rectifying the situation. Will it cost a lot? Sure, but the threshold under the Canadian Human Rights Act is accommodation short of undue hardship, which this isn’t. And besides, the Broadcasting Act states that accessible programming should be provided when resources become available, which they manifestly are.


Posted: 2006.04.06

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