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Here’s a re-posting from

Why? Because someone else actually linked to it.

When he passed away, my mother had me take the [caption decoder] off his set and I stuck it in the trunk of my car, figuring I might someday find a home for it. Six months later, I was at a San Diego Comic Convention, talking with a lovely man named Dick Giordano, who was then the head honcho at DC Comics. Dick has a hearing problem and we somehow got to talking about closed-captioning. He said he’d never tried it, and didn’t know where to purchase one of the decoders. I said, “Wait here a second...” and ran out to my car. Dick used it for years, all the time wondering how it was that I just happened to have a spare closed-caption device with me.

So here we go:

5% Moonves urine, shurely?!

I seem to recall, in the haze of settling skyscraper on September 19, another kind of dustup in which mighty David Letterman got in shit for holding up a Gatorade bottle to reveal its secret ingredient: 5% GATOR URINE.

I scarcely ever watch the show and missed this episode. Apparently the word “urine” was nuked from the broadcast. Can’t afford to annoy a sponsor. (Piss in one’s Gatorade pales in comparison with smallpox in one’s nasal cavity, doesn’t it?)

But did it happen with enough warning to avoid being captioned anyway? Apparently not.

The Late Show with David Letterman is captioned using the live-display scrollup technique. The program is transcribed almost completely verbatim (by the usual method – a person playing and pausing a tape and typing at a computer), with the resulting captions scrolled up later, either as the show goes to air first over satellite or to a second tape.

(The only other ways to caption anything involve the same transcription steps but editing and positioning of caption blocks, the so-called pop-on or pop-up or popup style, which essentially every fictional program and a great many nonfiction shows use; or real-time captioning done using stenotype keyboards. As examples, Leno is scrollup, Buffy is popup, and Jon Stewart is stenocaptioned. Scrollup is used on Letterman because there is not enoug leadtime to place popup captions; since there is indeed some leadtime, however, real-time captioning is unnecessary.)

En tout cas, what happens when the producer changes audio after captioning occurs? The captions and audio do not match. The Star Trek franchises and The Simpsons are notorious for this post-captioning “sweetening,” and there’s nothing the captioner can do about it because they simply are not in the loop.

On very rare occasion, a spoken word is bleeped (that is, censored) after captioning happens. I have scarcely ever seen it even after more than 20 years of watching captioned TV. And that’s exactly what happened with our thirst-quenching gator urine.

The gag was actually uttered twice. The first time, the captions scrolled up the full phrase “5% gator urine.” Whoever was at the controls noticed that the word “urine” was blanked out and busted a gut fixing the next occurrence, only seconds away, so that the caption read 5% gator [no audio], as is proper. (If the word is actually bleeped, you have to say [bleep] or [beep]. A momentary gap in speech is actually [no voice]; a gap in the soundtrack is [no audio]. Precise orthography varies.)

The result? Of four occurrences of “5% gator urine” (two spoken and two captioned), only one survived – the first captioned instance.

This was apparently noticed upstairs at CBS, which threw a shitfit and ordered that, from now on, Letterman would only be real-time captioned to avoid any recurrence.

This is of course a miserable course of action. Even the best stenocaptioners (in the U.S., all of them work for Vitac) cannot keep up with the 180-word-per-minute repartée and unpredictable, relentlessly-dropped proper names in a talk show. It’s hard enough stenocaptioning the news even when you have reasonable warning of proper names likely to come up.

All you need to do is compare Leno (scrollup-captioned by Vitac) and Letterman against Craig Kilborn, which isn’t even a live show yet is captioned as though it were (by NCI). Even though NCI has reassigned its best writers (quality has increased dramatically in the last three months), they simply cannot keep up.

Scrollup captions, by contrast, can:

The Caption Center does a better job with Letterman than Vitac, still stuck in the dark ages of SCREAMING ALL-UPPERCASE CAPTIONS and hard-to-read spaces-inside-brackets non-speech orthography, but both cases are orders of magnitudes better than what NCI manages with Kilborn.

It’s a structural issue: Real-time captioning always misses things and is less enjoyable to read than pre-transcribed scrollup.

Based on my recent viewing, however, the Caption Center is in fact pre-transcribing and scrolling up current Letterman episodes. They’re just using oldschool UPPERCASE captions of the sort produced by stenocaptioning. A casual glance by ignorant CBS executives, who surely cannot tell the difference, would lead them to believe that real-time captioning is in effect.

It is quite apparent to an expert like me that the Caption Center handled the original program as best it could possibly be handled. Tens of thousands of captioning viewers are now being made to suffer unnecessarily crappy captions in a misguided, vainglorious effort to avoid pissing off Gatorade, so to speak.

And people wonder why I gripe so much about captioning. There’s so much to fix.



Have a look at the gigantic full-page profile of me and movie access in the Toronto Star.


“I don’t really trust subtitles”

Well, these two itemettes from Now are marginally interesting:


Want to work in captioning, etc.? Well, heaven knows why; you’d earn more in telemarketing. But God love yez anyway.

Who or what is SDI?

SDI is not exactly a household name on this side of the pond. According to the annual report, SDI stands for Subtitling & Dubbing International. Modern Times of Sweden owns them. Financial results (previous year removed):

The business area increased net sales by 7% in the first quarter, improved operating income by 33%, and delivered an operating profit margin of 9%....

  • Net sales: SEK90,000,000 [CA$14,270,00, US$9,271,000]
  • Operating income: SEK8,000,000 [CA$1,268,000, US$824,000]

That’s just for the first quarter of 2002.

A gigantic PDF that is not worth loading says:

  • Operating profit margin increased to 9% (7%)
  • DVD subtitling revenues increased by 11% and amounted to 44% of business area total
  • Operations in 19 countries – only global player in dubbing and subtitling
  • 60% share of Hollywood feature film DVD subtitling market

The annual report (PDF) states:

These applications are employed to customize the subtitling of films and television programs for the partially or completely deaf. The difference to ordinary subtitling is that all sound effects are subtitled, enabling people with impaired hearing to enjoy the total film experience. SDI provides this particular service for a number of studios including MGM, Warner Bros and New Line Cinema.

So that’s who we’re dealing with.

More on SDI later.


Joe did Ottawa:
Now with proof!

Less than a month after my appearance before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, the transcript of the “evidence” I gave before that committee is now posted. I’ve got it up on my site in a convenient form, with links to the 295 K original.

I’ve been cultivating the delusion that I actually have a story to tell about the trip. Not really: I saw Murder by Numbers with MoPix, got upgraded to the presidential suite for free, marveled at low-floor articulated buses and the near-absence of coffee bars, and had a quickie meeting with the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. And I didn’t get to see my old friend.

Then, with effortless connections that put afternoon streetcar commutes to shame, I flew home. All courtesy of the Committee.

All right, I do have something to say. The grounds around Parliament are deserted due to the ongoing and sure to be perpetual “security concerns.” You can wander around all you want; there just aren’t any cars, groups, or furniture. I was able to walk directly toward the Centre Block of the House of Commons, admiring the Peace Tower. In the bright cool air, I felt not unproud and not unhonoured.

That went away real fast at the security desk, which approximated an anal probe. Gotta love this business.

Caption typography: Gag me with a spoon!

Also, I spent the equivalent of a full workday accumulating examples of online caption typography, which, like all NUblog entries, will go widely ignored.


Naked Val-promotion

In the May 2002 Saturday Night (not online), Valerie Waite, the stenocaptionistrix, is featured, and good for her, dammit.

According to Toronto-based Joe Clark, the eccentric self-appointed guru of closed-captioning, Waite is not only fast, “she captions with unusual finesse. It’s more than getting the words onscreen. Val uses the proper punctuation and upper- and lowercase. You might find that in court reporting but not TV.”

This is certainly a slight redaction and oversimplification of what I explained to the writer, Steve Featherstone. Val uses U&lc only occasionally, but under demanding conditions, as when captioning Electric Circus. My general praise is, however, accurately rendered.

Jobs in captioning:
You get what you pay for

Why is captioning so bad? Because you get what you pay for.

The issue here is the paltry salaries captioners make. It is possible to earn in the $30,000 range (that’s Canadian or U.S. dollars, as appropriate), but that’s pretty much the ceiling. The exception? Captions, Inc., where captioners are paid by the piece. Even the slowest captioners there are said to earn $40,000; the fast ones earn eighty.

(This discussion pertains to “offline” captioning or captioning of prerecorded programs. Real-time captioners are also underpaid even though they earn more than “offliners.”)


The so-called Media Access Group at WGBH, alias the Caption Center (its name for 20 years, and I’m not about to stop using it), pays a published $25,518–$36,450 for a captioner. (In the only existing online source, the job was a six-month contract in the sickliest Caption Center office, New York.)

But if you want to work as secretary/office coördinator, you earn $30,071–$39,403. (See the WGBH jobs site.)

In other words, the lowest published salary for a WGBH secretary is $4,553 more lucrative than a captioner’s salary, while the highest is $2,953 more.

I have stated elsewhere (see the February 2002 Silent News article, not online) that you might as well go to work as a phone-sex operator for all the money captioning pays.

(Interestingly, one of the job functions for the secretary/office coördinator is “Coordinate paperwork for licenses for Rear Window captioning system and maintain installation database.”)


NCI is even worse, though that is merely in keeping with its two decades of solid mediocrity and historical reliance on government funding to undercut competitors.

Standard offline caption “editors” irrespective of location (Virginia or L.A.) and live-display captioners are all listed as “Starting salary in 20’s” (apostrophe usage sic). Perhaps the second digit in the salary is a 9, but odds are only 10% in that direction.

The Dallas captioner job requires fluency in Spanish and does not list a salary. Nor do any of the other listings at the NCI jobs site.

My impression is that the “starting salary in 20s” indication is essentially a warning: Abandon all hope, ye who are desperate enough to take this job.


And now the increasingly noticeable SDI (jobs page), whose former name, Gelula, is so very much more memorable. Kristin Cotterell wrote to the Captioning list stating (a) they’re starting a captioning department (I thought they already did captioning); (b) they’re hiring; and (c) they’re doing a salary survey (“I’m hoping that some of you will E-mail me personally and let me know what you think the going rate is”).

If they’re hiring, why are they doing a salary survey? If they’re hiring, aren’t they already doing captioning?

Why doesn’t this make any sense at all?

I personally rang Kristin on May 10 and told her much of the same publicly-available information listed here. I explained that paying “the going rate” is proven to produce bad captions, while the other salary model, the Captions, Inc. piecework approach, costs more but produces better work. She claimed that some kind of California law precludes such payments, but had no real response when I asked how Captions, Inc., which does business in California, could still pay its employees, or how a model like base salary plus commission could not possibly work in California. (The latter is a slight modification of piecework. For all I know, Captions, Inc. captioners are paid the equivalent of base plus commission.)

So if you want to work at SDI, expect to earn no more than at the competitors.

Other shops

Captionmax isn’t hiring. Vitac is, but they don’t list salaries.


Flash access, again

Flash MX: Clarifying the Concept,” on Flash accessibility, is out today at A List Apart.

Further, I am again quoted in Wired News: “Flash News Flash: It’s Accessible.” Kind of. Got scooped on one fact there.


Joe did Ottawa

Back from wowing the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. I was somewhat overwhelming to Committee members, and kept getting hilariously! lost in the House of Commons, prompting a full-on code yellow by security staff.

More news as it develops.


Joe does Ottawa

On Tuesday, April 22, I’ll be in Ottawa to I give evidence to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, on accessibility provisions in the Broadcasting Act. It may eventually be televised.


Redesigning the D

You can now use the formerly-servicemarked DVS icon to refer to any kind of described programming.

But should you?

No. The icon, designed for print, looks crappy on TV.

We do have alternatives –

DVS icon ‘DVS’ alternative

as I document over here.


80,000 Jaws users cry:
“Hurt Bill and you hurt us!”

It is not unfascinating to read the “Written Direct Testimony of CHRIS HOFSTADER” (sic) in the Microsoft antitrust trial. He’s the vice-president of Freedom Scientific, the people who bring you Jaws, the Microsoft of screen readers.

One presumes Hofstader means “Netscape 4 doesn’t work with Jaws” rather than “Netscape in its totality is inaccessible.” I’m sure we could dig up competing browsers (Window-Eyes, anyone?) that work adequately well in Netscape. In any event, that will be fixed, and not only for Windows. Oh, but wait – Mozilla Accessibility says it already supports MSAA and DOM and is adequately accessible.


We Aaron Barnhart

Kansas City Star TV columnist Aaron Barnhart has always been pro-captioning. On his group Weblog, TVBarn, he even blogged me (twice!).

And now, to no one’s surprise, Aaron is pro-description. He’s now posted a nice story about the absurd opposition to description shown by U.S. broadcasters, and just how difficult it is to persuade stations in Kansas City to pass through SAP.

“Excellent,” to quote Mr. Burns.


Work at GBH

Well, if you want to work in the access field and live in New York or El Lay, this is your lucky week!


Earth to broadcasters:
Get with the program

Well, we’re in the second week of FCC-mandated audio description on U.S. commercial TV. Jack Valenti, take note: The sky has not fallen.

Some recent press coverage:

  1. Blind Audience Is Aided by Audio Technology:

    • “The technology allows the user to turn on a secondary audio channel, on which a narrator describes the action during pauses in the dialogue. (All televisions made in the United States since the early 1990’s have such a channel.)” Hardly, honey. Care to check mine? And there are no U.S. manufacturers of televisions anymore.
    • “Later, a narrator sets up a scene in which the family’s bumbling patriarch, Homer Simpson, keeps his wife, Marge, awake with loud snoring. ‘As Homer’s snoring shakes the house, Marge lies wide awake next to him. On the night stand an alarm clock and a lamp wobble. Marge covers her face with her pillow.’ And so on.” “And so on”? What is this, Grade 6 English? Give us examples, not the idea of examples.
  2. TVBarn postings (first, second) and discussion.

But here’s a question. Why does it seem that only one covered network, Lifetime, has a dedicated page listing described shows?

If you’re blind, you can’t just sit there and wait for captions to appear, as a deaf viewer could. And you can’t just leave your equipment set to SAP, either, because some channels broadcast no SAP (all you hear is silence or a hiss), or they broadcast reading services or something other than main audio. (Listening to main audio on SAP is a drag anyway because the audio quality is so poor.) And blind people can’t read printed TV listings; no listings, to my knowledge, document what shows are described.

Nor (reportedly) are there any audible and written messages at the beginnings of U.S. shows explaining that they’re described, something we definitely get right more often than not in Canada.

Then again, the only theatre chain that maintains a page for captioned and described movies is Famous Players. Everybody’s falling down on the job here, really.


Yet further evidence that subtitles, like tears, are not enough

The Digital Bits reviews a 12″ laserdisc of The Phantom Menace.

You mean they still make laserdiscs?

As with most laserdiscs, you don’t get much in the way of extras. In fact, here you get nothing. Unless you count the fact that the Japanese subtitles are presented on this release in LD-G (Laserdisc Graphics) mode, so if you have a newer laserdisc player, you might be able to turn the subs off. I can’t, unfortunately, but the subs never intrude upon the picture, remaining underneath in the bottom black bar of the letterbox. Since it’s a Japanese release, the English subs we all saw in the theaters here in the States (when aliens like Watto talk) aren’t there. The disc is closed captioned in English, but the captions appear over the subs (making them hard to read unless you can turn the subs off) and they don’t include the alien-language translation, unfortunately.

Well, as I keep trying to explain to people, captions don’t translate, and subtitles only translate from a single designated source language (because subtitlers are arrogant and/or lazy and are all about reducing information).

So the error here is of course that the captions (done by whom? Captions, Inc., presumably):

The Japanese distributor could have been to blame here by simply taking the American captioned master and subtitling that.

Similar complaint:

The big issue with the picture is Japanese subtitles. They only appear in the black bar underneath the picture and you do end up ignoring them as the film goes on. However, another downside to this is that the alien translations are only in Japanese, so you will have to remember what Greedo says to Han at the cantina in ANH and what Jabba says to Boushh and Luke in ROTJ. The subtitles are on the disc in a Laserdisc Graphics (LD-G) format. I am told some high-end players may be able to mask them out, but my player cannot do this.

Why can Japanese laserdiscs show captions? Because Japan uses the NTSC television standard. Line 21 captions can survive any kind of recording, including a laserdisc. See DVD capabilities.


Maiden voyage

Hi, everybody! (Hi, Dr. Joe!) You are witnessing another example of personal overextension: With four ill-tended Weblogs already on the go and a growing collection of accessibility pages already posted, and AccessiBlog updates clocking in at once every two months, what the hell am I doing starting up yet another blog?

Because nothing succeeds like excess. The higher the Weblog, the closer to God.

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Your host: Joe Clark (E-mail), a journalist, author, and accessibility consultant in Toronto.

Updated about once a month.