Joe Clark: Media access

Updated 2005.09.08

Intervention in Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 2005-6

This intervention, by Joe Clark of Toronto, opposes all four applications for new pay-TV movie channels for the following reasons:

I will need to appear at the hearing.

Permanent location of this intervention

Since the Commission has a habit of altering the content of submissions (and converting them to inaccessible, proprietary, unpublished document formats like Microsoft Word), readers are advised that the true text of this intervention is available at the following URL:

Unlike nearly all the files offered by the Commission and the applicants, the intervention is available in a standards-compliant, accessible, published format, namely valid HTML.


New movie channels are not needed

We don’t need any more movie channels in Canada. The current cozy duopoly has its drawbacks, but a lack of movies to watch isn’t one of them. There are only so many films available in the world, and pay TV is merely one of many methods to watch them. In particular, there simply are not enough Canadian films (let alone Canadian films worth watching) to justify a 24-hour channel showing nothing but those.

We don’t need another round of broadcasters appearing all nice and sincere before the CRTC, only to turn their lucrative licensed television station into a rerun network.

All applications should be rejected solely on the basis of absent market need.

Applicants – and the Commission – show predictable disregard for accessibility

Applicants make paltry commitments to quantity standards for captioning and none at all for audio description.

In particular, Quebecor has the temerity to pledge to caption only half of its French-language programming in Years 1 and 2. Moreover, it proffers the same decades-old lies that some genres of programming (like live shows or porn) cannot or should not be captioned, and that French is harder to caption than English (not for offline programming, and not hugely so for live shows), and that programming sourced outside of North America somehow presents a problem (it doesn’t: caption the NTSC tape), and that subtitled programming cannot be captioned (it can be and is; they’re two separate things).

Quebecor also claims that captioning feature films costs more than it does for English-language networks, even though the Commission has already told broadcasters that captioning is a cost of doing business. (That seems to be all the Commission thinks captioning is, but it at least dispenses with Quebecor’s tired line of argumentation.)

Quebecor also hitches its wagon to “new technologies” that will reduce turnaround times and costs, but there are no such technologies; deaf and hard-of-hearing people should not be exposed to uncaptioned programming while a wealthy media conglomerate waits around for somebody else to invent something. Hence, Quebecor’s rejection of a 90%-across-the-board captioning requirement as not “opportune” itself needs to be rejected.

We’re not done yet: Quebecor claims that audio description costs “about $2,000 an hour,” a provably false statement. Flowing from this untrue claim of high cost, Quebecor simply rejects doing any audio description at all. The resulting human-rights complaints will run up a higher bill than providing the accessibility in the first place.

And on that score, the Commission displays its usual contempt for the Charter, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Broadcasting Act, and common decency. The Commission has more or less warned applicants that it will require a whopping two hours a week of described programming. That’s one movie. So if you’re sighted, you sign up and watch all the programming you want 24/7. If you’re blind, you pay the same rates and get to watch and understand 1% of the broadcast week. Will blind people be getting a 99% cost discount to make things equal? Is it finally clear to the Commission what equality actually means?

Even when applicants seem to be promising enough – e.g., the Canadian Film Channel’s promise to caption 90% of programming in all years – we see that the applicants just do not understand what accessibility means. French-language films may be shown with nothing but subtitles on that channel, even though subtitling is not an adequate accessibility technique for deaf viewers. None of the applicants understands that interstitials, bumpers, announcements, intros, extros, and in-house commercials for the service all have to be captioned, too. If that seems excessive, ask yourself how CBC Television and Newsworld manage to do it – without charging viewers just to receive the channel.

Applicants can be expected to cheap out and use the worst captioning and description available

Among the applicant corporations and CRTC commissioners, I would hazard a guess that not a single person loves or even likes captioning, watches it all the time, or would voluntarily watch it even for minimal periods like a solid couple of weeks. I would further venture to say that none of those people loves or even likes audio description or has spent more than even a few minutes watching described programming. Moreover, I submit that all parties involve lack the literacy (in numerous senses) and technical chops to understand what makes for good or bad captioning or description.

However, all parties involved sure know that it costs, and they sure hate paying for it. Hence, commercial offers from the many charlatans in Canada claiming to be able to caption programming for next to nothing will prove irresistible. They’re already irresistible to other broadcasters. Applicants will also shop solely on price for audio description.

The results will be the same deplorable captioning that is the norm in Canada and the substandard audio description that is all too common here. Quite frankly, the applicants don’t give a shit and hate having to do it and pay for it, so they’ll do what the rest of the Canadian broadcasting system does and cheap out. Quebecor’s already doing it – just look at their existing stations, particularly Toronto 1.

Faced with a choice between anything that meets some legal definition of “captioning” or “audio description” (a term the Commission can’t even use correctly) that costs next to nothing or something that actually provides real accessibility to programming but costs more, the applicants can be relied upon to choose the former. And their friends at the Commission will back them up all the way.

Applicants ignore the urgent need for standards

Compliance with even the simplest technical standards is already poor in Canadian pay-TV movie channels. The professional engineer who oversees captioning at the Movie Network admitted to me in writing that he can’t fix a serious and ongoing set of captioning problems on his own station, a fact that the Commission hasn’t noticed yet because none of its staff would be caught dead watching captioned TV. Since the Movie Network is part of the incumbent competition, its represents the level of service (and basic technical competence) that will be tolerated.

The present applicants variously propose to broadcast in English and French and in high definition, and will end up being forced to describe a full 1% of their broadcast week. (Oddly enough, there is no technical method to broadcast closed description on a digital service that works for every method of distribution, so I wonder if the Commission and applicants are aware that they are essentially agreeing to open description. If open description is OK for two hours a week, why not 40? Or 168?)

Do the applicants who are proposing high-definition programming understand that it is difficult to translate 608 captions to 708 in a way that actually makes it through to viewers’ TV sets, and that there is almost no capacity anywhere to produce native 708 captions?

And that’s just the technical side, which is all the old guys in engineering who dominate the discourse on accessibility at Canadian broadcasters understand. The actual practice of captioning and audio description (also subtitling and dubbing) remains entirely unstandardized. I’m sure that the first thing you think of when I make that claim is the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ captioning manual, which is itself a textbook example of how not to write a specification. Apart from its hundred-odd known deficiencies, it hasn’t been tested with audiences, doesn’t work in French, is ignored by most captioners in Canada, and is interpreted differently at different captioning shops. Most importantly, it has no scope at all over most of the captioning viewed in Canada, which comes from U.S. sources.

As the Commission and all applicants know, what the global industry requires is a set of standards based on research and evidence that shows how captioning, audio description, subtitling, and dubbing should be done. Those standards need to be backed up with testing with viewers and practitioners. And as the Commission and all applicants also know, I need a paltry sum to get such a research project off the ground.

All applicants were twice requested to include my proposed research project in their portfolio of social-benefits spending. The sole response was from Nic Wry, who wrote, in an E-mail on 2005.05.20, “We should talk about this guy. He made a huge fuss at the CHUM–Craig media takeover.” I told all applicants that I didn’t care who ultimately got the license (now I do care: I think none of them should) and I asked all applicants to commit to funding Year 1 of my project.

Since the applicants have deep pockets and managed to find millions to promise to spend on the usual bureaucratic co-funding arrangements for the usual lousy Canadian films, and since the winning service will charge money for subscriptions, I presumed, perhaps naïvely, that a small sum of money might be available. After all, these applicants couldn’t possibly just be trotting out what they think the Commission will want to hear, could they? Surely they are sophisticated enough to understand that captioning and description (for example) are in a sorry state that needs fixing.

The applicants, I guess predictably, ignored my arse, except for Nic Wry’s admonition that I should be “talk[ed] about.”

At the hearing I’ll explain exactly what is wrong here. In essence, the Commission rubber-stamps any promise of social-benefits spending (no matter how off-topic). Applicants would prefer to spend good money after bad by purchasing existing nonstandard captioning and description services rather than investing in needed infrastructure projects that would ultimately benefit themselves.

The Commission cannot be relied upon to get this right

I will further state that the CRTC has an untrammelled history of doing the wrong thing in accessibility. It all stems from the idea that accessibility is optional, something we’ll get around to doing if we feel like it or, more accurately, if our profits are high enough. (It does not help that the CRTC’s many employees with French as a native language and passable functional English, and their colleagues at Quebecor, cannot distinguish captioning from subtitling, as they are the same word in French. Nor does it help that the CRTC attempted to redefine the entire concept of audio description, to no effect other than to make itself look clueless.)

The Commission can be relied upon to replicate the applicants’ own attitudes and indeed not give a shit about either captioning and description in the present context – or, for that matter, the need for researched and open standards in those two fields and others. I fully expect the Commission to rubber-stamp all the applicants’ proposals concerning accessibility (perhaps bumping Quebecor up to 90% captioning by the end of the license term) and impose a seriously burdensome requirement to describe 1% of applicants’ programming. After that, as far as Commissioners are concerned, we can all go home.

Well, be warned that the Commission’s reign of error is coming to an end. You’ll probably screw this application up as badly as you’ve screwed everything else up in the past. The difference is this time you won’t get away with it.

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