CBC president Robert Rabinovitch (q.v.), apparently misunderstanding a question from an industry Web site, stated the following about downloading CBC TV shows:

The answer to that is that it’s going to be “soon.” It’s going to be like [ABC has shown] Desperate Housewives, literally the next morning.

I doubt the original question asked about the time delay between TV broadcast and downloadability. Nonetheless, can we all assume that CBC will eventually get with the program and offer TV shows for download, whether for free or at a price? (CBC already podcasts, though a single American public-radio station offers about as many podcasts as CBC does.)


As I have mentioned from time to time over the years, way back in 2002 I carried out a small contract for CBC, for which I think I was paid $3,000 (I could go check, but the order of magnitude is about right), to experiment with online captioning of CBC Newsworld clips. At the time, they used a simple Wintel box with a digitizing card connected to a Newsworld feed and VCR. The operator would simply click a button to digitize live-from-air, or could do so from tape. (The quality difference of tape vs. live was negligible once compressed to RealVideo.)

Since everything on Newsworld is nominally closed-captioned, it was a simple matter to buy a new broadcast-quality decoder, place it between the VCR and feed and the digitizing computer, and do a second pass with the decoder turned on, resulting in a new file with burned-in open captions. Doing so doubled the total handling time of any item, but so what? It was already a matter of minutes per item, not hours.

You the viewer merely selected the uncaptioned or captioned version.

CBC News Online did not manage the project. We found the money from another department. (And there was probably a spare decoder sitting in Engineering in Montreal, but my guy just decided to buy a new one at a total cost of 600 bucks American.)

In fact, the very stern news producer had no interest in the project whatsoever, and, while he didn’t stop it, he did order the digitizing staff to place the task of adding a captioned version at the very bottom of the to-do list. I met them all and they were young whippersnappers, so, as it turned out, it was usually possible to produce a captioned version and, on slow news days, all items had a captioned version.

Apart from reading about it in a few things I have written, you’ve never heard of this project before. It was never announced, and that was for a bizarre reason: The creaky custom-built content-management system could not show which items had captioning on the main News page, doing so only on the item page. It was decided that we could not publicize the program if people could not tell at a glance from the News page what was captioned and what wasn’t. Asinine to say the least.

At some later time, CBC simply stopped publishing captioned videos. I think this coïncided with the arrival of a new producer. Also, reorganizations of the CBC Website in 2005 and 2006 were carried out so badly that thousands of URLs simply stopped working. (Cool URLs never change [or, more accurately, they never break], and as someone who sits on a few thousand of them, mine always work.) One of the casualties at CBC was the collection of captioned clips and the links to them, all of which disappeared. I don’t think CBC was stupid enough to delete the video files, but I do think they were stupid enough to delete the original item pages that linked to the captioned versions.

I call on CBC – this would be Blake Crosby, presumably – to restore those links. (Every filename ends in a RealVideo suffix and begins or ends with cc.)


If we’re gonna start offering TV shows for download (and I’ll use the word “we” advisedly), then we have to be better than the private sector, which captions nothing. There is so much vapourware in the field of online captioning that half-arsed projects like AOL’s get tons of blog press even though they result in only a few items of captioning on a good day.

I’d like to hear a rational argument why TV broadcasts should be captioned but TV downloads shouldn’t. No? Then let’s continue.

The only rational standard is for downloaded versions to be captioned if the original TV show was. Since CBC Television and Newsworld have 100%-captioning requirements, which they’re still ignoring (blog posts), in theory every show will have captions. We can do a couple of things:

Recapitulate the 2002 experiment and simply decode TV closed captions
Shitty fonts, all-upper-case, limited French accents, and occasional zero-blinkrate captions (no blank frames between captions) will all conspire to make the viewing experience excruciating
Decode the TV closed captions in a better font
This would be right up my alley and is almost immediately attainable using a software decoder
An expensive and seemingly unnecessary option that is actually the only option for shows with scrollup captions, HD-only programming that was never captioned, 16:9 or other widescreen shows with fullscreen captions, and a few other unusual but real examples

As with the 2002 experiment, you the viewer would download the captioned or the uncaptioned version. With online video, it is pointless and actively harmful to replicate the TV scenario of closed captioning (one signal that has to work for everybody).

I am pretty much stating outright that CBC cannot launch a download service of any kind until captioning has been completely taken care of. Even if every other detail is nailed down, the project cannot be launched until captioning is in order.

But we aren’t done yet.

Audio description

There is still the issue of audio description. While a few flash-memory-based MP3 players, including the iPod Shufflé, are adequately accessible to blind people, iPod Videos are pretty much unusable and iTunes is a total bitch to operate in a screen reader. (You have to download scripts – some freeware, some at a cost of up to £35 – to get Jaws and Window-Eyes to work, and even VoiceOver on Tiger is not easy.)

So for the person with little or no usable vision, there is no really accessible option in typical use. For this group, there may be no choice but to offer either audio-only (not always a bad thing) or a Windows Media or RealPlayer version, as those video players are adequately accessible most of the time on Wintel machines. The Mac scenario is not so bad, since QuickTime itself can play iPod Video files and is not so terrible to use under VoiceOver.

Linux? Linux users are probably totally out of luck. They would be a useful user base to test, though, since they’re pretty much all hackers and programmers.

Now, in case this appears to be a licence to ignore blind accessibility, keep in mind that most people who can’t see still can see something. Visually-impaired people can use and do use iPods and iTunes and other software. For iTunes and other players, it’s a question of screen magnification. (ZoomText plus iTunes is slow but usable.) If you really have to, you can hack a huge external remote control.

No matter what the delivery format – nothing special, or WiMP or RealPlayer files – programs that already have audio description should be available for download with description. This doubles the number of available files per episode to four – with and without captions or descriptions.

If CBC wants to use its own Web site to sell or distribute these programs, it becomes imperative that the page be supremely accessible, well in excess of any minor ticking of WCAG checklists. A lot of user testing with adaptive technology and people with different disabilities will be in order.

It would, moreover, make sense to allow purchasers to transfer any combination of files, with and without accessibility features, and to go back for a second download if they want to receive variants they didn’t catch the first time. So, for some users, CBC really will be selling up to four video files, with up to four transactions, all at a single price.

I want to just add a requiem here for hosted prime. (Prime-time TV shows were introduced in a recorded studio segment by other CBC personalities.) I thought it was novel and rather classy in a genuine and nonironic sense. It set CBC apart from other broadcasters, who have, admittedly, occasionally tried something similar. It also enabled the host to declare in voice that a program was described – an absolute necessity, since blind people cannot be relied upon to read onscreen messages. Hosted prime has disappeared, and with it any indication that TV shows are described. Let’s not recapitulate this mistake online.

Do you think captioning is too small to read on an iPod?

It isn’t.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.12.04 16:58. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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