Every six months, somebody writes a new story about captioning that gets a dozen facts wrong. This time it’s Sue Ellen Reager’s turn. She makes so many mistakes she should go to work for Aberdeen Captioning, the scrappy little company that suppresses the comments I post correcting their umpteen errors.


  • “The time in history has arrived when captioning and subtitling are beginning to blend into one”: Only if you think “captioning” means “Line 21 closed captioning” and “subtitling” means “two lines of yellow Arial.” Yesterday, subtitling and captioning were two separate things (everywhere, including Britain), and tomorrow they still will be.

    Hence “Users could flip a switch to see subtitles (which were called captions to differentiate their new on/off capability from the burn-in variety)” is still false.

  • “Programs will become available in two, five, 20, or 40 languages”: Adding one language requires 1.5 times the effort (translation plus subtitling or captioning). Today, barely any “programs” are even available in two languages, and half the time that’s done by machine translation of scrollup captioning.

  • “In 1980, the first set-top closed-caption decoder box with its own antenna was made available for $200”: It didn’t have an antenna. (I own one.)

  • “About 400,000 set-top boxes were sold over 25 years”: What, through 2005? Decoders pretty much disappeared after 1994.

    There’s no source for this citation, nor does anyone but John E.D. Ball know how many external decoders were really sold, if even he does.

    Greg Downey (Closed Captioning: Subtitling, Stenography, and the Digital Convergence of Text with Television, pp. 97–98) stated that, by 1981, only 35,000 decoders had been sold; the projected sales were 100,000 a year. By 1986? Fewer than 100,000 (p. 200); NCI claimed 100,000 in 1985 (p. 206), but that was mostly to unload an old inventory of circuit boards and generally to save face.

  • “In 1990, the Decoder Circuitry Act” – the Television Decoder Circuitry Act – “mandated that all televisions sold in the U.S. with screens 13″ or larger must contain a built-in caption-decoder chip,” but only starting in July 1993. “That law signaled the death knell of the set-top box manufacturers,” who were, for all intents and purposes, singular: Sanyo manufactured the decoders Sears sold for NCI.

  • “The advent of the decoder chip enabled all 24 million hearing-impaired people to be assimilated into our lives”: How condescending. Isn’t it great we assimilated those hearing-impaired people into our collective?

  • Remote control “Another effect of the [Television] Decoder Circuitry Act was the ability to control captioning with a remote control” (emphasis added): My TeleCaption II had a remote. Still does.

  • “Today, captioning is mandatory for all broadcast media with a few exceptions, such as new companies, companies with less than $3 million in revenue,” companies outside the U.S. (a possibility simply ignored here), “and Internet channels,” which aren’t regulated anyway.

  • Imagine this writer describing an elephant to a blind person. Here’s how she describes a monospaced font: “equidistant lettering in which an I must be as wide as a W.”

  • [T]he network or content manager either accepts responsibility for the encoding or outsources the task”: What’s encoding?

  • Inevitably she describes “the French” as “always striving to be different”; they “use SECAM,” which is merely PAL with a couple of tweaks. It isn’t a completely separate thing.

  • “Live captioning is generally performed by court reporters using 10-key machines in which the keys are a form of shorthand. The 10-key output is translated via software into English words”: That might be true if stenotype keyboards didn’t have 24 keys (plus machine-specific extras). Even your phone has more than 10 keys. (Press 1 for fact-checking.)

  • Reager copies and pastes some self-promotion from Vitac (“VITAC”) and a couple of small houses with a service to sell. Hint: Adobe doesn’t sell captioning software and there’s no research that shows a reading rate of 15 characters a second.

  • Apparently computer translation is just as viable as translation by bilinguals.

  • “CPC’s software breaks a transcribed script instantaneously into the raw captions required, splitting each sentence into the proper two or three subtitles, all of correct length as specified by the FCC”: There’s no such specification. (Good God, man – what if my sentence is only three words long?)

  • Here’s Reager’s closer. Purple prose or full-fledged self-parody?

    As 50,000 channels flood the Web, the internet is revolutionizing the way people feel about captioning, languages, and subtitling. In five years, at any time and on any day, billions of people around the world will be watching global internet channels from 300 countries, many subtitled and/or captioned in dozens of languages, and a new, global marketplace will explode before our eyes. As for those who cannot see the explosion, audio description for the blind technology, perhaps as text-to-speech, is in the works.

There’s a reason why you never heard of a Web site called StreamingMedia.com before this. And now you know you can safely ignore it.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.03.18 13:34. 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:

(Values you enter are stored and may be published)



None. I quit.

Copyright © 2004–2024