Guest Commentary: Flying Fingers Bring Viewers Trials and Errors

Jul 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Whatever the future of captioned viewing in the digital age—and kudos to TelevisionWeek for casting its considerable spotlight on the issue, with the welfare of millions of members of an invisible minority in the balance—I can only hope the door won’t completely close to the view that captioning has offered me. I’ve never felt more in touch—with an alternate universe.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of watching captioned TV news or other live broadcasts, as I have these past few weeks with my visiting father, it’s like no other experience you will have. Dad, deaf for 30 years now, lives on a steady diet of captioning; as my house guest lately, he’s been sharing the buffet. For the first time I’m hearing TV news, from local to network to cable, through his eyes. And all I can say is, who knew?

Who knew of the recent nationwide “oxy cotton” recall? Who knew of the medical developments for those with “Do You Gehrig” disease? Who knew of the debate going on in Washington about extracting stem-cells from “embrios”? Locally, who knew that murder suspect Phil Spector kept an “oozy” in his house or that L.A.’s mayor had changed his surname to “Via Ragosa?” Who knew that the disturbance in downtown L.A. a while back was the result of too many “ram bunkous” people in “eminent” danger because they did not “dispurs” as the police had requested? Or of the recent fire off the Pacific coast on “Data Island” or of the threat of a supermarket strike at both the Ralphs and “Vaughns” chains?

I try to stay current, but all this really was news to me.

Dad has complained for years about the quality-control problems when it comes to the captioning of scripted shows—lamenting the garbled phrases often found at the bottom of the screen, or the oddly placed text that hides the names of talking heads or obscures key scenes, or the words that just bleed off the screen, or the text that’s missing in its entirety at crucial points in storytelling.

When I became a network suit back in the day, he thought he finally had an inside contact who could investigate and even put an end to these annoyances that rattle him and so many other deaf people. (He did; I tried; I couldn’t—the whole process truly is of the buck-passing kind, with networks and stations and systems and programs each pointing fingers of responsibility for the hiccups.)

But I had no idea he also was getting such a fascinating window opened up to him courtesy of live captioning for news and public-affairs and talk show broadcasts. I had no idea how much he’d been holding out on me.

All these years, as a Catholic, I’d taken communion every Sunday at the church altar, not knowing what I was really observing was the sacrament of “common union.” All this time living in Los Angeles, and I never knew there existed buildings downtown that “sore” more than 50 stories. Now I’m intrigued. That chain of islands that I visited in their “entirty” last summer? Well, the word is out: It’s an “ark pell co” that everyone is flocking to now. A much better destination than “Gallway” or the Mideast country of “Sir Yeah,” where the views are “spectator” but the region is “dangeris.”

I’ve made a habit of watching with a passion HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” every Friday night. I love Maher and how he thinks, but I had no clue the man was a “libra tarian.” I would have guessed Democrat or independent, but obviously that would be a “wreckless” assumption. I should have “payed” better attention to what he was saying. I find it all so hard to believe, so hard to fathom, so “blind-blowing.” But it’s all true: Real-time captioning makes it so, and is spreading the word.

Now, I don’t mean to “chaft size” or “chid” those in the captioning business “unduely.” They provide a valuable and much-appreciated service for more than 20 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people and others who use captioning to learn English. Everyone involved no doubt works diligently. Real-time captioning is a particular challenge, as it forces the typist to keeping up with fast-talking anchors and talk show hosts who throw out every name and country in the book for the captioners to turn into instant text.

Like stenography, it’s a skill, an art, a tension-filled challenge. The job is obviously not for the “feint” of heart. Some wonder whether these folks are overworked and underpaid. I say they are “problem lay” right. Perhaps a vacation is in order: They should take advantage of the “somer” airfares and book a trip to the “Cat Skills” or “Rehobeth Beat” for some pampering and relaxing.

But I do wonder where they get the information in their heads that comes out to their hands and then on to their keyboards. And I wonder if they know how entertaining their work can be.

That’s why, even as Dad is packing to go back East, I’m thinking I’ll keep watching captioning TV on my own. I’ve come to enjoy it. It’s good information. And as we all know, “knowlege” is power.

Then again, maybe I’m just a “gluten” for punishment.

Jim McKairnes is executive VP of programming at Discovery and was formerly senior VP of scheduling at CBS.


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