Joe Clark: Media access

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CRTC filings and interventions → Telelatino license intervention

Updated 2002.10.16

Telelatino license intervention

This intervention concerns the license renewal of Telelatino Network Inc. (Nº 2001-0226-0). I support the license renewal, with reservations.

Location of this intervention

This intervention is filed through the usual process at the CRTC and will be available in its files. It will, moreover, be available online at

Lateness of intervention

I ask the Commission and parties to forgive the lateness of the intervention. I seem to be the only unaffiliated person in the country who cares enough about captioning and description to intervene in CRTC proceedings. Since there’s only one of me up against armies of CRTC functionaries and entire broadcaster departments dedicated to regulatory affairs, given the choice of filing late or risking a complete absence of CRTC interventions on accessibility topics whatsoever, I opt for the former.

I would note that Telelatino has gone to unprecedented lengths to deny the public, including me, substantive access to its license-renewal application. A separate complaint on that topic will be filed.

I would further note that is important for the Commission to consider this intervention on an equal footing with all others received in this proceeding. The Commission has a decades-long habit of rubber-stamping the accessibility “commitments” of broadcasters. As an example, absolutely every commitment by broadcasters undertaking Category 1 and 2 digital specialty services was accepted at face value. Commissioners do not bother to watch the same television signals they putatively “regulate” and have proven, time and time again, that they do not understand the first thing about captioning or audio description.

I contend that Commissioners, who have a surprising tendency to come from the broadcasting sector or end up working there after their CRTC tenure ends, actually share the industry’s general disdain at the annoyance of having to spend money to accommodate deaf or blind viewers. It is simply easier to get the pesky topics of captioning and description out of the way by talking about them for five minutes at a license-renewal hearing and approving whatever strictly-minimized commitments a broadcaster may make. It will be noted that the issue of policing those commitments never seems to come up.

The Commission may avail itself of the pretext that this intervention, arriving late, could not be considered. That would of course be a disservice, and possibly act as grounds for an appeal. It would behoove the Commission to simply accept my expert evidence and enact needed requirements for captioning and description.


Telelatino’s license renewal raises the following issues in accessibility.

Should “third-language” broadcasters have to abide by the same rules as English- and French-language broadcasters?

The obvious answer is yes, or at least that similar rules should be imposed. The Broadcasting Act states, at §3(1)(b),

the Canadian broadcasting system, operating primarily in the English and French languages and comprising public, private and community elements, makes use of radio frequencies that are public property and provides, through its programming, a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty

Emphasis added. Third-language broadcasters also make use of radio frequencies owned by the public. On its face, the Act does not authorize an interpretation of the term “public” that excludes people with disabilities.

§3(1)(p) states that “programming accessible by disabled persons should be provided within the Canadian broadcasting system as resources become available for the purpose.” Like nearly everyone else, I interpret “resources” to mean “money.” It is not categorically true that every third-language broadcaster has enough money to provide captioning and description. It is difficult to argue that an established broadcaster like Telelatino sits within that category.

§3(t)(iv) of the Act states that broadcasting undertakings “may, where the Commission considers it appropriate, originate programming, including local programming, on such terms as are conducive to the achievement of the objectives of the broadcasting policy set out in this subsection, and in particular provide access for underserved linguistic and cultural minority communities.” I would note that “underserved linguistic and cultural minority communities” are placed on equal footing. (Emphasis added.) It can be argued that Italian- and Spanish-speakers are linguistic and cultural minorities in Canada. It can further be argued that deaf and blind people are also linguistic and cultural minorities, a definition that includes minority status within the minorities of the Italian or Spanish language.

In other words, broadcasters using public airwaves are obliged to accommodate people with disabilities even as they accommodate linguistic and cultural minorities.

The Act gives the Commission the power to exempt broadcasters from such inclusiveness (Cf. “where the Commission considers it appropriate”). This intervention seeks to force the Commission to take a public stand on the issue of disability access for third-language broadcasters. Rather than rubber-stamping the current applicant’s weak, misleading, and self-serving evasion of substantive commitment to provide captioned and described programming, the Commission must either put force to the requirements of §3(t)(iv) or explicitly state that Telelatino has no obligation to accommodate people with disabilities.

Given Commissioners’ questioning of Telelatino executives at the public hearing, I would doubt the Commission’s ability to do the latter.

Should claimed incompatibilities between third languages and existing captioning and description technologies be accepted at face value?

The Line 21 closed-captioning system is a qualified failure in its application to programming in languages other than English. Through three generations (original TeleCaption specification; TeleCaption II specification; EIA-608 specification ratified by the FCC), the standard’s American designers have demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of the typographic requirements even of languages written in the Latin alphabet. It isn’t even possible to typeset even French and Spanish accurately using Line 21 captions. (There are certain less-significant deficiencies in typesetting English.)

It does not follow, however, that captioning in French or Spanish, or Italian or any other Latin-alphabet language, is impossible or that attempted captions in those languages are unreadable. It isn’t and they’re not. The results are apt to be slightly incorrect, with some words misspelled due to the absence of accents. One compensatory measure that is unsatisfactory in a host of ways involves setting captions entirely in upper case, though that is unsatisfactory in that it guarantees that every word containing an accented letter (save for Ñ, a separate letter in Spanish that exists in both upper and lower case in all caption fonts) will be misspelled rather than merely some of them. (It is a myth that Latin-alphabet languages do not require accented capital letters. It’s also a omyth that accented capitals are actually forbidden.)

In the case of Telelatino, enough characters reside in the Line 21 character set to caption Italian and Spanish adequately. (Other languages, including Portuguese, German, and many others, can also be captioned, and a small number of languages written in orthographies other than the Latin alphabet can be captioned adequately if they have a reliable romanization that native speakers can plausibly read, Japanese being the canonical example.)

Real-time captioning in Italian cannot be done in Canada, but some evidence suggests it is done for newscasts in Italy. It is not particularly difficult to transcode European Broadcasting Union codes for World System Teletext into Line 21 codes; it can even be done in real time.

Real-time captioning in Spanish is up and running. Randall Czerenda is credited with inventing the system of transposing Spanish phonology and stenotypy onto English-language stenographic equipment. Results are barely passable but will not get better without continued usage. NCI and Vitac are two U.S. captioners doing work in Spanish.

Real-time captioning in French is much more readily available than the Commission and Canadian broadcasters would like to admit. Two separate systems exist – the one used by Radio-Canada, and another codeveloped by Cheetah International and Waite & Associates. The former is in some use at present and, absurdly, limits its accented characters to é, while the latter sits on a shelf in California and uses every accent in the Line 21 character set. Results from French-language captioning are barely passable but will not get better without continued usage; one problem is a lack of training, hence a lack of qualified stenocaptioners.

There are no technological hurdles in third-language audio description whatsoever; it’s just a voice recording. Furthermore, one of the description providers in Canada, Galaviz & Hauber, is run by two native Spanish-speakers and can produce native Spanish-language descriptions with no trouble at all. It is difficult to believe that native Italian-language descriptions would be particularly difficult.

Is there a conflict between usage of SAP to deliver translations and audio descriptions?

In principle, yes. SAP can carry only one signal at a time. But in practice, the only broadcaster in Canada seriously using SAP to transmit translated audio is CPAC.

There is no reason why some programs cannot air with fourth-language audio while others air with audio descriptions in the same language as main audio. SAP runs all day; programmers can fill it with different speech at different times. The claim seems to be that, since it is theoretically possible that one program might someday need fourth-language audio and description, no description should ever be provided at any moment of the broadcast day. The Commission must reject this canard.

Telelatino claims, in its application, that it “intends to use the SAP feature to enhance the Telelatino service by, for instance, delivering an audio service in a different language than the primary audio and is presently experimenting with ideas and alternatives in this respect. Barriers to implementing such an initiative include acquiring or providing programming with dual audio tracks and the fact that many audience members do not have SAP-capable television systems and/or are unfamiliar with using the SAP feature on their televisions.”

Let’s unpack these claims one by one.

  1. An “intent” to provide fourth-language audio is meaningless without a timetable of implementation. Telelatino’s claimed intent is not credible.
  2. Telelatino may “enhance” its service by, “for instance,” providing description for the blind. Fourth-language audio, “for instance,” is not the only available option, nor does it negate the use of description.
  3. The licensee has provided no evidence of its “experimenting with ideas and alternatives,” which, in any event, is a euphemism for “diversionary speculation.” The licensee makes these claims of “experimenting” in a ploy to divert the Commission from requiring it to serve disabled viewers.
  4. The licensee, by its own admission elsewhere, cannot presently broadcast in SAP, making “experimenting” impossible. In any event, I tire of broadcasters’ repeated claims to have “experimented” with description; it is a proven accessibility technique.
  5. Many Italian- or Spanish-language movies and programming have been dubbed into English. It is a relatively simple matter of locating the dubbing track and licensing its broadcast rights. I would not call this much of a barrier.
  6. Viewers without SAP equipment are just going to have to upgrade. If they’re unfamiliar with using SAP, Telelatino can run PSAs to teach them.

Are claims of undue hardship, were captioning and description required as a condition of license, actually credible?

In some cases, for the very smallest broadcasters, yes, but not for a high-profile national service like Telelatino, with prime coverage on Canadian cable and satellite services.

The Commission can and should consider the hardship defense anew for each third-language broadcaster. But I would note that broadcasters have a tendency to interpret “hardship” to mean “having to spend a red cent,” at least when it comes to captioning and description. But broadcasting involves a very simple agreement, really: You get a license to use public airwaves; in return you must serve the public. Captioning has been part of TV broadcasting for 22 years, description for 14. Broadcasters should not act surprised when they are expected to spend money on accessibility; it’s part of the deal.

The Commission will find it rather difficult to make a credible case that very large third-language broadcasters like Telelatino cannot afford any captioning and description at all. The case can readily be made that such broadcasters should be obliged to meet the same requirements as everyone else in the English and French languages and also to provide captioned and described programming in third languages. Suggested quantities will be discussed shortly.

Telelatino’s submission

Telelatino Network Inc. displayed remarkable audacity in its license renewal. Reading between the lines, the impression I get runs as follows. Telelatino, a national network run out of a small office in the Toronto hinterlands, congratulates itself for snagging a plum CRTC license to broadcast, but has no intention of following the same rules everyone else with a national television license must follow. Telelatino considers itself an exception; of course it could not possibly provide significant quantities of accessible programming because it is special. As the saying goes, Telelatino wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

Telelatino’s submissions variously state:

  1. They don’t have the money to caption Telelatino-produced third-language programming. No cost estimates were filed to back up this impressionistic claim. Telelatino suggests that even trivially small quantities of captioned programming would be unaffordable, yet provides no evidence.
  2. There isn’t enough turnaround time. Well, there might be if Telelatino bought a couple of captioning workstations and did the work in-house. Naturally, the quality of such captions would be even worse than the generally appalling Canadian norm for prerecorded programming, but neither the Commission nor Telelatino would particularly care. Otherwise, this claim merely reveals that Canadian captioners cannot turn around good work on a short deadline, something U.S. captioners have no trouble doing.
  3. “Telelatino is making efforts to caption even its own productions and will continue to do so.” No titles of captioned shows were provided. I submit this claim is false. I have never seen a single English-language program with captions on Telelatino, and in fact the only captioned shows I’ve ever seen are U.S. imports with original U.S. Spanish captions. A national specialty service can rely on the captioning kindness of strangers for only so long. Yet Telelatino plans to caption only “the special programs listed in Schedule 2C,” which Schedule it did not provide me.
  4. Acquired English-language programming arrives uncaptioned, and it would cost too much to recaption it. The network provides no examples or cost estimates to back up this claim. I can name half a dozen English-language shows that were captioned by U.S. or even Canadian captioners yet air with no captions in Canada or were needlessly recaptioned from scratch. (Examples: North of 60, Da Vinci’s Inquest, Prime Suspect, Arthur, DeGrassi Junior High.) The claim that some uncited English-language program is unavailable with captions may not even be true.
  5. A 90% English/50% French captioning requirement would cost too much and be impossible due to turnaround times. In-house captioning is not that expensive, and neither is out-of-house captioning, for that matter. As for timelines, Telelatino should take notice of a dramatically impressive invention from 1981 known as real-time captioning. Though absolutely the wrong method when applied to fictional narrative programming, music and arts shows, or in fact anything prerecorded, real-time captioning can nonetheless be used under battle conditions.
  6. Telelatino cannot broadcast in SAP. It needs to buy the equipment.
  7. Telelatino has no plans to air descriptions. Its plans will need revision.
  8. Telelatino cannot use SAP for description because it intends to use SAP for fourth languages. As explained previously, Telelatino cannot broacast in SAP at all at present, so this claim can be discounted. Fourth-language and described programming can coexist on SAP.

Remarks during hearing

During Telelatino’s license hearing, the following testimony was recorded:

COMMISSIONER PENNEFATHER: In light of the carriage proposals you have and the resulting revenues, you say that you should be accessible to all Canadians. Does this not include visually-impaired Canadians and if so what is your commitment in this regard starting in year one if you receive the carriage you are proposing and even not? What is your proposal in this regard? I believe at the last hearing you hesitated on this matter. You said you had a board for described video and you would use the SAP channel for these purposes, but have you gone further in your thinking on this matter?

MR. IANNUZZI: Yes, we have. In that we start off with the fact that the subtitling in reality is open captioning, so we are saying that we impaired with open captioning. What you are talking about is the close captioning which goes one step –

COMMISSIONER PENNEFATHER: I am talking about visually impaired.

MR. IANNUZZI: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I thought it was the hearing impaired.

COMMISSIONER PENNEFATHER: I’m sorry. Described video. We will get to the close captioning.

MR. IANNUZZI: No, no. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

COMMISSIONER PENNEFATHER: Described video, yes. Do you have a more cohesive and developed plan to make your programming available to all Canadians, including those who are visually impaired? This was discussed at the last hearing and you said you had a board for described video and would use the SAP but you did not have any budget set aside or any greater detail on how you propose to make your programming available for visually impaired Canadians. Are you prepared to table such a plan with us today?

MR. IANNUZZI: We would have something for you by the end of the day on that particular matter. Thank you.

COMMISSIONER PENNEFATHER: Thank you. Now on the closed captioning, Mr. Iannuzzi, just to reconfirm your commitments, close captioning of English and French language programming on each of the French and English feeds by the end of the licence term, that would be all programming would be close captioned. Do you still maintain that commitment?

MR. IANNUZZI: Yes, that is still our commitment.

COMMISSIONER PENNEFATHER: Captioning of at least 90 per cent of the programming which is not subtitled on each of its English and French feeds by the end of the licence term.

MR. IANNUZZI: Correct.

No plan to accommodate blind and visually-impaired viewers appears as part of the public record despite Telelatino’s promise to file it. No doubt this forms part of Telelatino’s efforts to limit public access to its license-renewal plans, but it also underscore’s the Commission’s failures in follow-through and dissemination of public documents.

Subtitled programs are not captioned programs. They cannot and should not be counted as captioning. The differences are significant and material.

Telelatino and the Commission need to disabuse themselves of the misconception that any kind of words slapped onto the screen constitute accessibility for deaf viewers. I could only suggest that Telelatino and Commissioners actually do the unthinkable and watch TV: Watch ten subtitled movies with the sound completely off and then try making the claim that “subtitling in reality is open captioning.” Proponents of this falsehood will, moreover, be in for a very big surprise the first time they watch a captioned subtitled movie.

Should further evidence be required, I refer readers to pp. 130–131 of the only book on subtitling still in print, Subtitling by Jan Ivarsson and Mary Carroll (Berlin: TransEdit, 1998).


Given the foregoing, it seems reasonable to require the following of Telelatino:

  1. 90% captioning of English-language programming and 90% captioning of French-language programming, regardless of source, by the end of the license term. Due to the licensee’s abject failure to serve deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers to this point, aggressive first-year targets should be specially imposed. I would suggest 20%. Telelatino should not be held to a mere 50% French-language captioning for two reasons: There’s so little of it that captioning essentially all of it is not onerous and, of course, Mr. Iannuzzi agreed to that level of captioning in the public hearing.
  2. A level of captioning of Italian- and Spanish-language programming equivalent to half the level of French-language captioning imposed on other broadcasters (that is, 25%) by the end of the license term. It seems like a reasonable figure, especially considering that Telelatino can put it off for six years before lifting a finger.
  3. A level of audio description equivalent to Omni·2’s requirement of two hours per month, one of which can be a repeat, with the same escalation schedule. No more than 25% of those hours may consist of English-language descriptions of English-language programming. Descriptions must be in the same language as the predominant language of the audio.
  4. Subtitled programs are not counted as captioned unless they also include closed captions or are true open-captioned programs, which are, in any case, virtually nonexistent.

I urge the Commision to impose the above requirements immediately. Telelatino is counting on receiving a bye from the Commission; the broadcaster is due for a rude surprise on that count.

We cannot wait another seven years for Telelatino’s license to come up for renewal. (That would mean captioning would not have arrived in meaningful form for Telelatino’s entire existence and for a full 29 years from its first widespread use. Description would also be exempted for seven of its first eight years of meaningful provision in the Canadian broadcasting system, making its appearance on Telelatino a full 21 years after its first widespread use.)