Joe Clark: Media access

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Out of the caption closet

Originally published circa 1991 (in OutWeek) | Updated 2001.07.15

Out of the caption closet

I am not an animal, I am a human being. I just happen to be a hearing human being who likes captioned TV. Scoff if you will, but you, dear reader, are apt to dig captioning too, once you give it an honest chance.

Closed-captioning is the only consumer technology I know of that, by its very design, is kept secret from the mythical “general population.” Only deaf people, it seems, are supposed to be attracted to this technique of transmitting written words in coded form inside regular TV signals, words which become visible using a special decoder. Until last July, you had to fork out real money for a decoder; now, though, fancy new decoder chips are legally required to reside in all new TVs with screens of 13” or larger. That requirement singlehandedly transformed captioning from an idiosyncrasy of a Secret Decoder Ring of deaf people, their hearing relatives, and a few isolated hearing weirdos to a mainstream technology from which anyone, very much including hearing people, can benefit.

That doesn’t mean most hearing people will benefit from it. Anecdotal evidence shows that captioning helps people with poor reading skills, including kids, adults with literacy problems, and English-as-a-second-language learners (immigrants, in fact, made up the bulk of hearing decoder buyers in the olden days before built-in decoders). But the essential nature of captioning – placing words on the screen – is something we are told most “normal” (ahem) hearing people will not put up with. That’s why the captions are closed in the first place – to avoid irritating finicky hearing viewers who consider their onscreen real estate sacrosanct.

This bias against captioning (if hearing people know what it is in the first place – “Duh, isn’t it sign language?”) is irrational to the point of hysteria and is nearly always based on culpably little firsthand experience. In an age where everyone uses ATMs and computers, hatred of closed-captioning is the last remaining socially accepted technophobia. Remember the beamed-in Orwellian character in Apple’s “1984” Macintosh commercial? He was shown speaking with captions, and that about sums up hearing people’s feelings about captioned TV: Lob a hammer through it!

However, I am a kaption kween from way back who spent his wayward youth watching what few open-captioned shows were broadcast in the late ‘70s (no decoder required). I’ve also watched closed-captioned shows since the very beginning. I thus feel qualified to publicly expose the claim that captions are intrinsically “distracting” to Joe and Jane Hearing Viewer as the crock o’ shit that it is – and you can quote me on that. If your only exposure to captions is five or ten minutes standing in the Wiz watching a show, with the entire focus of the exercise the captions themselves, of course they are going to dominate your attention and of course you’re going to hate them. “Distracting,” you’ll say, as if preprogrammed to do so, which you are.

But spend a few weeks with captions always on (particularly using a TV with a nice caption font, like RCAs or high-end Panasonics), thereby giving yourself time to adapt to the conventions of the medium, and I betcha you’ll keep captions on for good. Why? Because no other medium allows you to absorb similar information in two different modes at once. If you’re like me, you find TV too slow as it is and want more tracks, more data, more words. Captioning ups the input ante to two linguistic tracks: You hear it and read it, and unlike the bouncing ball that was limited to 1960s kids’ musical shows, this multitrack experience is available on every type of program – movies with foul language, music videos, commercials, The Simpsons, you name it. Following the audible and readable dialogue of a captioned show engages neurons you probably never knew you had, and once you’ve lived with captioning, TV seems “wrong” without it. So give it a whirl.

Besides, with captions on you can talk on the phone and/or listen to music while still following the TV. Now that’s multimedia.