Closed captions are all around us. We read them as they scroll beneath the TV news anchor as we work the elliptical at the gym. We turn on subtitles in the QuickTime Player menu to see what Snoop just said on a DVD episode of The Wire.
At the same time, they're elusive. Closed caption sponsors are thanked before many TV shows, so why don't we see captions onscreen? We know they help people with hearing loss, but beyond that, most of us have no idea where they come from, how they're accessed, and what role they play in the media.
Captioning technology was originally designed to make broadcast media accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is estimated that 24 million Americans cannot hear sufficiently enough to fully understand a TV show. But most of us benefit from captions. We use them to follow the TV news at the gym or in a noisy airport bar; to decipher dialog on a DVD, or to learn a new language. Digital technology and increasing demand for accessibility are making captions more prevalent.What Media Employ Captions?
Many TV shows and commercials are captioned. So are most feature films. Nearly 800 movie theaters in the US offer screenings with closed or open captions. DVD releases of most movies and TV shows have captions. Captions are also used increasingly in pre-recorded web videos and on corporate websites and in presentations that include video. You also find captions on video games, media monitoring devices, and telephones. All newer Apple and Windows computers also feature captioning functionality in their operating systems and media programs, such as Windows Media Player.How are Captions Created?
A caption writer transcribes the script, adds pertinent information, syncs word placement with the show's run time, and finally encodes text into the video via computer. Captions are embedded in line 21 of a TV signal's vertical blanking interval, a data area set aside for caption and V-chip information. A one-hour show takes about 30 hours to caption.
For captions during live programs, stenographers type what's spoken and the words are broadcast immediately. There are also automated systems that create live captions using voice recognition software, which is cheaper than stenography, but more prone to errors.The Media Access Group at WGBH in Boston pioneered closed captioning technology in the early 1970s.Who Pays for Captions?
TV broadcast services, corporations, advertisers, foundations, government agencies, and individuals all fund closed captioning.I Hear About Closed Captions, but Never See Them on My TV. Why?
Closed captions are digital data embedded in the TV signal. To be visible onscreen, they must be decoded. Set-top decoders or caption-ready TVs enable users to turn captions on or off. Since 1993, all TVs with 13" screens or larger sold in the US have built-in decoders under the Television Decoder Circuitry Act. Set-top decoders are available at consumer electronic stores.How Do I Know Which Programs are Captioned?
Look for one of two symbols in your TV listings: a "CC" inside a TV, or a small TV screen with a tail at the bottom.How Do I Find Captioned Films and Accessible Movie Theaters?
You can search for captioned movies in your area on Captionfish. Just enter your zip code for a list of showings. These sites continuously scan the web for accessible films screened by theater chains. Many theater chain websites also list accessible films and show times.How Do Movie Theater Captions Work?
Most theaters use Rear Window Captioning (RWC) developed by WGBH and Rufus Butler Seder in Boston in the early 1990s. A large LED display is mounted on a rear wall projects captions in reverse image. Deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons view the captions on a transparent acrylic panel they request on entering the theater. The viewer positions the panel, which rests in a cup holder, just below the screen to read the captions while watching the film. The LED does not distract other moviegoers.What's the Difference Between Closed Captions, Open Captions, and Subtitles?
Open captions are essentially the same as closed captions. The difference is open captions are a part of the content, are always visible, and cannot be turned off. Closed captions only appear on devices that support them. They can be turned off. Subtitles, though similar to captions, assume the viewer can hear, though may not understand the dialogue, e.g. a foreign language film. Subtitles only transcribe spoken dialogue.