(NOW WITH UPDATES) As improbable as it seems to at least one old fart in the accessibility business who has sent me hate mail in the past, I really and truly have been interested in the field for over 25 years. I think it’s actually 27 years, because I can backdate it to receiving a letter from the Caption Center on my birthday in 1979, a day made additionally memorable because it involved a solar eclipse. I had already been watching The Captioned ABC News for up to two years before that time, although I cannot pin it down exactly.
The Caption Center at WGBH claims to be the world’s “first” captioning house, and that is surely correct. The problem is that it pretty much does not exist anymore. Between November last year to January this year, WGBH Boston laid off nearly all its captioners at the original Boston office. According to a report, approximately 1½ staff positions remain in offline or prerecorded captioning, down from over a dozen (possibly 16). The online or real-time captioning division has also been gutted.
Why did this happen? Media Access Group at WGBH – which, according to another source, never earned more than 3% to 4% profit margins – simply wasn’t making enough money to satisfy WGBH managers. Now, keep this in mind: The operators of a large nonprofit organization forced the gutting of a nonprofit operation allegedly because it wasn’t earning enough money.
The result is that the oldest captioner in the world effectively does not exist. All the Boston work will apparently now go to the overworked, flaky, unreliable Los Angeles office. Even though the Media Access Group’s current director has actively attempted to harm me in the past, at least since 1989 I’ve been recommending the Caption Center, sometimes with reservations. For several years I have amended that to recommend people insist on the Boston office only. Now there’s nothing to recommend.
(Incidentally, here’s something that fans of PBS may wish to note: Now Masterpiece Theatre will be captioned in L.A. Perhaps you’d like a double decaf latte and a rent boy along with your encoded submaster?)
According to a source, the Descriptive Video Service in Boston is unaffected, as is the DVS office in Los Angeles. Boston captioners were offered positions in L.A., an offer that apparently only one person took up. The rest were dispersed into the four winds. This itself causes serious damage to captioning, but I’ll talk about that in a minute, because I’m not done yet.
In January, the so-called National Captioning Institute fired its entire unionized captioning workforce in Burbank. This was the result of weeks of tense contract negotiations that are helpfully documented on the union’s Web site. What were some of the areas of contention?
NCI management complained that Burbank was losing money. (Once again: A nonprofit corporation complains about profit margins.) One figure cited was $388,000.
Management wished to increase each captioner’s quota to 90 program minutes a day, an astronomical and biomechanically impossible figure. (Then they increased the increase to 99 minutes.) Twenty minutes a day is a more rational figure, and one that typical captioning houses will follow. NCI’s contract with its caption “editors,” available online as a PDF, considers full productivity the production of “a minimum of 28 minutes of programming… and at least a minimum of 500 complete acceptable captions… per shift.” I consider that a high figure. (A later estimate lists 42 minutes on average, which I find even more doubtful.)
Of course there are slightly slower and slightly faster captioners, but only slightly. Irrespective of the software used, for captioning of prerecorded programming there is a ceiling to the number of program minutes that can actually be captioned, and that ceiling hasn’t changed in a decade, if not two decades. The ceiling has nothing to do with employees slacking off and everything to do with human audio-visual processing and neuroanatomy. There is only so fast you can listen, transcribe, position and shape a caption, and move to the next one. And of course you can speed things up by using scrollup captioning, but that is a problem itself, not a solution.
Management proposed no significant pay increases, but a tiny payment for each incremental average increase over the impossible 90- or 99-minute quota.
Negotiations broke down, NCI fired its unionized captioners, the captioners picketed the office, and the world of accessibility continues to go to shit.
- The union and NCI’s former employees speculate that all programming sent to NCI Burbank will either be ingested on site and FTPed to NCI’s other offices (outside D.C., in Dallas, and, most improbably of all, in London), or tapes will simply be couriered there. Or nonunion staff will do the captioning. Or, it is feared, they’ll use outside freelancers. All of this has clear implications for security and piracy, and according to the fired employees, NCI lost the ABC contract because it could not guarantee that captioning would take place in the office that received the tapes. (That was a significant loss. For about the first ten years of U.S. closed captioning, all ABC programming was captioned by NCI.)
- WGBH Boston is already sending its work to another city.
- A source who refuses to violate a nondisclosure agreement more than a little bit states that two U.K. captioners and one in the U.S. already outsource work to that anglophone powerhouse, Malaysia. (When you think of Malaysia, is the first thing that springs to mind the fluent and untrammelled ability to render U.S. and U.K. English in captions?)
- I have direct knowledge that one foreign-owned captioner sends U.S. programming overseas.
- Meanwhile, the most expensive captioner in the world, Captions, Inc., lost the Disney contract to Vitac, allegedly over missed deadlines. While I have a lot of little quibbles with Captions, Inc.’s work (documented previously), they are a high-quality shop that took a huge business hit.
So let’s recap
The two oldest captioners in the U.S. have just finished gutting one office each. So we’ve got – let’s use round numbers here – 30 people wandering the streets who liked or loved captioning and aren’t doing it anymore. Now, tell me, are there so many captioners who love their jobs that we can afford to cut that many loose?
The recent history of accessible media is one of a race to the bottom, where every half-arsed postproduction house and semiliterate mom-’n’-pop decides that captioning or description is “straightforward” and proceeds to undercut the professionals. Suddenly we’re confronted with two things:
- Captioning atrocities like the use of scrollup captioning for everything (Macbeth, opera, standup comedy, and captioning added to subtitled programming – everything)
- A workforce of disgruntled liberal-arts graduates working as captioners who are already afraid they are washed up. They know they’d really like to be doing something with their English-lit or teaching degrees, but are also pretty sure this isn’t it. (And nearly all of them are women in their mid-20s. Why is that kind of monoculture OK while the monoculture of, say, construction foremen, firemen, or policemen isn’t? It’s OK if a workforce is female-dominated but not male-dominated?)
Captioning and description should be more expensive – everything else in television is expensive; why not this? – if only so that people who actually give a shit will do the work. Of course, deaf people provably don’t give a shit themselves, so who are we kidding?
Requests for comment
I exercised journalistic responsibility and asked Jay Feinberg of NCI and Mary Watkins of WGBH to answer some questions by E-mail. Neither responded, but they still may do so for attribution, in private or in public. If I’d had a greater taste for high-pressure telephone conversations, I would have called them up, but I anticipate the result would have been the same.
Questions to NCI
- Is it true that, in recent contract negotiations concerning Burbank’s unionized employees, NCI proposed that each caption editor complete the captioning of approximately 90 program per eight-hour shift? Separate from that, is NCI aware of any captioner anywhere whose employees produce more than approximately 30 program minutes per eight-hour day?
- If a key issue in the negotiations was NCI Burbank’s failure to “make money,” why wasn’t the nonprofit status of NCI advanced as a reason to reformulate the issue into not losing money? Why must NCI, a nonprofit, “make” money?
- Is it true that there was no significant increase in work orders before the negotiations began compared to, say, a few months or a year before?
- In percentage terms, how much more or less offline captioning is taking place at NCI Burbank right now compared to, say, December 2005 or January 2006, when the full unionized workforce was present?
- Are nonunion staff doing offline captioning work at NCI Burbank? If so, are there more such staff in NCI’s employ than there were before February 2006?
- Is any work of any kind being transferred to other NCI offices, including the one in England? (Electronically, or by shipping videotapes, or both?)
- Is any work being outsourced to third-party operations or individuals? If so, what states (in the U.S.) or countries are they located in?
- What comments can NCI give regarding the apparent gutting of the one office of the second-oldest captioner in the United States?
Questions to WGBH
- What were the reasons why most or all offline and real-time captioners in the Boston office were terminated, were let go, or retired within the last 90 days?
- How many offline or real-time captioners were terminated, were let go, or retired within the last 90 days?
- How many captioners of any kind are working in the Boston office at present, and what general kinds of programming do they work on?
- Is captioning work – including WGBH Boston’s own productions – now being transferred to the Los Angeles office? Does this in fact mean that a program like Masterpiece Theatre is being captioned in L.A.?
- If so, how does WGBH square this situation with your published comment that “e think of ourselves as a regional service provider”?
- Is any work being outsourced to third-party operations or individuals? If so, what states (in the U.S.) or countries are they located in?
- What bearing did the adoption of Swift, at $10,000 or more per seat, have on the Boston staffing actions?
- Are additional captioners being hired for Los Angeles?
- What staffing changes, if any, have taken place with DVS in Boston and Los Angeles?
- What comments can WGBH give regarding the apparent gutting of the oldest captioning office in the world?
Statement by NCI Terminated Workforce
As E-mailed to interested parties 2006.02.03, excerpted here without comment.
From: NCI Workforce
We, the former editors of the Burbank NCI office, are asking all NCI clients to read the following. Thank you, in advance, for your time.
After a brazen series of union-busting tactics to cover up management ineptitude, the National Captioning Institute terminated 15 captioners and subtitlers this past Tuesday, January 31, 2006, and is left with more work than can be handled by the remaining offices in Vienna, Virginia; Dallas, Texas; and London, England. This means that, in addition to these offices, other companies or independent freelancers will handle your work. So, rather than having your material stay in one office (the conveniently located Burbank office), tapes will be outsourced to other locations, some out of state or even out of country, and video clips will be beamed to servers thousands of miles away.
In short, your creative property is put at exponentially higher risk from hackers and video piracy. Take the example of ABC, who two years ago declined to re-sign with NCI after learning that their work as not being done in-house as the contract specified. Now 15 of NCI’s most experienced editors have been canned, and the programming of many television and movie studios is in limbo.
Quest for Pyrrhic victory
A question for everyone in the industry: Are you sure you want to emerge victorious in a race to the bottom?
First, I forgot to mention that it is hard to understand why any U.S. captioning company would reduce staff when the Federal Communications Commission requirement of 100% captioning for a wide range of programming kicked in on 1 January 2006. How does a firm lay off staff when demand increases?
Additionally, it has been suggested to me that the loss of U.S. Department of Education or other government grants played a part in WGBH’s decision, if not NCI’s, to reduce staff. I invite any facts that anyone might have on that topic.
Second, today (2006.03.08) I received this statement from the Media Access Group at WGBH, provided verbatim:
A letter to address recently-raised concerns about WGBH’s Media Access Group
In the fall of 2005, WGBH’s Media Access Group consolidated its off-line captioning services by expanding its Los Angeles production facility where the majority of its commercial clients are located. At the same time, staff was reduced at its Boston offline captioning operation.
These changes were made in response to increased competition and the need for greater efficiencies, and are part of a strategic plan that will enable WGBH to continue providing high-quality captioning services to our clients while remaining an organization where talented people can forge access solutions to the challenges posed by new media.
Employees at the Boston facility were given the option of relocating to the Los Angeles office. In addition, the Media Access Group’s real-time captioning office also reconfigured its staffing levels and work schedules, to better respond to the demands of live scheduled and emergency or extended event broadcasts while addressing the realities of the competitive marketplace.
WGBH’s real-time-captioning operation continues to be based in Boston where it provides thousands of hours per year of live captioning services for local and national clients in every sector of the media. The administrative and research and development activities remain headquartered in Boston while descriptive video will maintain production staffs in both Boston and Los Angeles.
In the future, as in the past, we will continue to serve caption and description users and our clients in the broadcast, cable, home video, DVD, online and theatrical motion picture world with the highest level of service, quality and innovation available anywhere in the world.
- – Larry Goldberg, Director, Media Access, WGBH
- – Tom Apone, Director/Services, Media Access Group at WGBH
- – Linda Idoni, Director/West Coast, Media Access Group at WGBH
(2006.05.27) In May 2006, I had luncheon with some of the gutted captioners of WGBH, which was an honour and a pleasure.