Is Anyone Able to Follow Closed Captioning?

by Tina Blue
January 13, 2001

          I am not a big TV fan, and after my divorce in 1983 I had no desire to spend money (which I would not have much of) on a television set. A friend was unloading an old 13-inch black and white set, so she gave it to me, and I used that one for several years.

          Eventually the picture tube went out, and I decided I would have to finally break down and spend money on a new TV. I purchased a 13-inch color set, and all went well--until later that year when I learned that the federal government had just mandated that all new television sets manufactured, starting the next year, would have to come with closed captioning built in.

          I was terribly frustrated. All along I had been thinking it was too bad I couldn't afford one of those special devices that would closed-caption my programs or videos for me. But now everyone else would be able to get their captioning at no extra cost. I had missed the new rules by just one lousy year!

          About two and a half years ago I pretty much quit watching television. It wasn't because of my hearing--if I sit fairly close to the TV, turn up the volume, and wear my hearing aids, I am able to hear most of the words on most programs. And I still watch videos and go to movies in the theaters.

          I quit watching television mainly because it eats up too much time, and I have other things I like to do with that time. I let a friend have my TV set a couple of months ago, since I almost never used it anymore. Now he has his video games hooked up to it so he can still play games while I monopolize his computer.

          Last weekend, while I was visiting another friend, we decided to rent a videotape. The movie we chose was High Fidelity. Like most John Cusack films, this one was all about clever dialogue, so after awhile we decided to use the closed-captioning (which my friend's set has) so I wouldn't have to struggle so hard to follow what was being said.
i cnt blv wt i sw! i hd no ide tht clsd cptning ws dun so bdly! ts nt evn tht thy wr usg abrvshns or tht a lot uv th stuf wz bng spld foneticly. Sum uv th abrvshns dnt evn mak imdyut sens, and a lot wrnt evn al tht fnetic. I hd tu pzzl thm out.

          Now, I am a very fast reader, and I have no trouble at all following subtitles, which are typed out completely and spelled properly. But I was completely confused by the weird abbreviations and flawed attempts at phonetic spelling in the closed-captioning on that movie. I was so distracted that we finally had to back the darned tape up and turn up the sound so I could pick up the dialogue the bizarre words on the screen had caused me to miss.

           I was moved to write this article after reading another (hilarious) article,  by Lori Torrance. Lori's article deals with closed-captioning that is done in real-time, so the typist has to hurry to keep up with the words as they are being said. Still, as Lori points out, no one types that badly. (Now, though, I find myself suspecting that maybe really, really bad typing skills are among the specific qualifications for that job.)

          No one was trying to type the dialogue of the movie as we were watching it on videotape, so obviously there was no excuse for making it unreadable--except, perhaps, the fact that so many people with normal hearing don't really think the difficulties imposed by a hearing impairment are all that big a deal.

          I think the fact that I am a college-level English instructor makes the outrageous spelling of closed captioning seem particularly jarring. But it is also true that many people who have a significant hearing loss are middle-aged or older. Like me, they were educated at a time when proper spelling was emphasized. I can't imagine that they find that sort of misspelling comfortable to read.

          Maybe after awhile you get used to the weird spelling I encountered on that videtape. (No one could ever get used to the sort of spelling crimes Lori describes as being committed in real-time closed captioning.) But how hard would it be for those responsible for a film's video release to make sure that the closed captioning actually makes sense?

          I no longer feel I was cheated because I missed the new TV manufacturing rules by one year. Instead, I fell as though I squeaked in just under the wire.
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UPDATE: I have a TV with closed captioning now. I discovered what the problem was. There is this thing called "coring" that distorts the words to make them shorter on the screen. But as the coring is often very badly done, it can be hard to understand. My closed captioned TV, set on the non-coring option, is wonderful. I especially love that I can watch DVDs of movies I could never have seen in a theater.
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