June 17, 2007
Digital Revolution Excludes Closed Captioning
The Digital Revolution Has Made TV More Ubiquitous Than Ever -- Except
for Viewers Who Need Captioning
By James Hibberd
Colleen Farrell is a 21-year-old college senior who's been shut out of
television's digital revolution. She wants to watch her favorite shows
online. She's up for downloading programs to her iPod. She would like
to watch shows on her brother's high-definition set.
There's just one problem: Ms. Farrell is one of 23 million Americans
who are deaf or hard of hearing and must rely on closed captioning.
In the rush to create new products and make television programming
available anytime, anywhere, the need for closed captioning is being
The major broadcast networks have launched state-of-the-art online
video players -- that do not include captions.
Apple has revolutionized TV viewing by making shows available for
download on iTunes -- without captions.
The television industry is spending billions to deliver spectacular
high-definition signals -- but viewing captions on HD programming is a
Byzantine process that has frustrated many viewers.
"With the move toward hi-def, and the explosive growth in video on the
Internet, it's like we're starting all over again," said Mike Kaplan,
who serves on the steering committee of the Hearing Loss Association of
Los Angeles. "Since 1993, closed captions have been built into every TV
set larger than 13 inches. So why in 2007, with the latest and greatest
technology at our fingers, is it getting harder and harder to view
The lack of closed captioning on new media doesn't only close out deaf
and hard-of-hearing viewers. According to a BBC study, 80 percent of
households that use captions are watching the subtitles to learn the
language or to follow a program in a noisy place.
With network ratings hitting record lows, the failure to extend closed
captioning to the digital world ironically makes TV shows less
accessible for some at a time when programming is more widely available than
Although the Federal Communications Commission requires captions for
broadcast and cable content, the rules do not cover Internet streaming or
digital downloads. That makes extending closed captioning to those
media more a matter of corporate responsibility than regulation.
The FCC rules do cover high-definition and video-on-demand delivery,
but experts complain that, between companies not complying with
regulations and a lack of consumer awareness, many viewers still feel chained to
their traditional analog sets.
"The complexity of digital transitioning has made closed captions a low
priority," said Larry Goldberg, director of the Media Access Group at
the Boston-based public broadcast station WGBH.
Mr. Goldberg should know. He wrote an update to the Federal
Communications Commission guidelines in 2000 that expanded closed-captioning rules
to include HD broadcasts.
An iTunes spokesman said the service's video offerings don't include
closed captioning and refused to comment about "future products or
Most networks refused to comment about their lack of online captioning
beyond brief statements.
Fox said they are "actively engaged in exploring ways to leverage the
closed-caption data to improve the user experience."
The CW said, "We are not doing closed captioning on our streaming and
have no plans to do so at this time."
ABC, whose award-winning online player is the most-visited among the
network Web sites, said captions are not currently available; the
network's spokesperson was "not sure of any future plans."
CBS declined to comment.
Not a Cost Issue
The sluggish network response might suggest adding captions is
technologically difficult or expensive. But experts on both sides of the issue
agree that's not the case.
Broadcasters have spent millions developing elaborate online games and
interactive elements to engage fans, while the price of converting
televised caption text for the Web is only about $200 per episode. Once a
software system is in place, that cost tends to decrease further.
Perpetually cash-strapped PBS has managed to add captions to many of
its shows online.
"All the tools exist to do it. It's just a matter of time and money to
make it happen," said Tom Apone, who works with Mr. Goldberg at the
Media Access Group and helped develop caption software for PBS. "It's
pretty straightforward and not terribly expensive."
Cable network sites, including news networks, are also behind the
captioning curve. As part of a class project at Gallaudet University, Ms.
Farrell surveyed news sites and found that very few provided captions on
their stories (CNN.com was an occasional exception).
Among the major broadcasters, only NBC has made a public commitment to
add captions. Every episode of every show will be caption-ready when
the network's new Web player launches this fall, said Vivi Zigler,
executive VP of digital entertainment and new media at the network.
Ms. Zigler was the only network executive contacted by TelevisionWeek
who was willing to talk about closed captioning. She said there have
been technological hurdles, but agreed the issue has been overlooked.
"If we were face-to-face, you'd see me nodding sadly -- it's 100
percent true [a lack of awareness is to blame], but it's not a good excuse,"
she said. "From a business management standpoint, we crawl, then walk,
For high-definition broadcasts, closed captioning raises tricky
Traditional analog broadcasts have captions embedded in the signal that
are decoded by the TV set. But HD captions are part of a separate data
stream decoded by a set-top box (unless they are viewed with an
over-the-air antenna). To view the captions, every piece of hardware and every
relay service must be compatible and in sync.
"From a deaf and hard-of-hearing consumer's point of view, this is a
big problem," said Sheila Conlon-Mentkowski, a representative for the
National Association of the Deaf.
Online message boards devoted to the topic are flooded by a variety of
complaints -- from a cable company not properly sending a signal, to a
set-top box that buries its captioning switch in service menus
invisible to consumers, to captions that bleed off the sides of the screen.
Calling content operators, stations or device manufacturers tends to
lead the viewer into a maze of support personnel unfamiliar with
"People getting HD service are running into endless cycles of
finger-pointing between set manufacturers, cable and satellite companies, and
individual channels," Mr. Kaplan said.
The FCC requires local broadcasters and cable and satellite operators
to make captions available on HD broadcasts. New networks have a
four-year window to comply, so some smaller HD channels such as Universal HD
have limited captioning, even though their content is largely repurposed
from traditional networks.
Shortly after TelevisionWeek asked the FCC about the issue, the
commission issued a formal advisory alerting viewers that they may experience
problems receiving captions for HD broadcasts. The advisory said to
contact the FCC to report companies that violate captioning rules.
"Consumers may file complaints and the commission may take enforcement
action where the rules are violated," said Cathy Seidel, chief of the
FCC consumer and governmental affairs bureau.
Cable video-on-demand services are considered channels by the FCC, yet
they have a spotty track record on captioning. A Comcast representative
said its VOD offerings are exempt from FCC requirements, citing the
four-year exemption for new channels.
That raised an issue: In the digital age, what is a channel? VOD is
almost entirely repurposed content that has been on the air for years.
Comcast said each VOD brand added -- such as HBO and Discovery --
should be counted as a new channel with four years to comply.
"The captioning capability is in place and we're providing that in
accordance with the regulations," said Comcast spokesman Chris Ellis. "The
amount of captioned content continues to increase."
Mr. Goldberg of Media Access Group countered that the four-year
exemption was never intended to give cable operators a reason to not include
captions on VOD.
"This rule was intended for things like a new cable channel, like Spike
TV or the Golf Channel, to give them time to get up to speed and earn
some revenue," he said.
According to viewers, pockets of non-captioned content are very common
on new digital services.
Rather than wait for the FCC to update its regulations yet again, Mr.
Goldberg and others urged companies to take it upon themselves to make
captioning a higher priority.
"The closest we get to knowing what's covered is common sense," Mr.
Goldberg said. "If it smells like TV and looks like TV..."
Captioning New TV
Online video: Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS and The CW do not offer captions for
their video players, though NBC plans to launch a player that supports
captions in the fall. PBS has captions for some online shows. CNN has
captions for some news clips on its Web site.
Downloads: iTunes does not support captions.
Video-on-demand: Some VOD offerings are captioned.
High-definition: HD broadcasts are required to include captions, but
viewers often find them difficult to access. The FCC has issued a formal
advisory about the problem.
New channels: Some newer channels do not provide captioning, as cable
networks have a four-year window to add the service.