Sunday, January 07, 2001

Technology helps clue TV viewers

Closed captioning, video description spread beyond PBS

        I was a teen-ager spending the night with my only friend who shared my disability. That, in itself, is another column — the importance of peers with one's own disability — but this is a column about television.

        We had done the usual teen-age girl things: Talked about boys, compared hair tips, baked brownies and made lemonade. The parents were asleep, and we were watching late-night television.

        An old movie was on, a Humphrey Bogart movie, which we didn't then know was a classic. We were both invested in the story when the ending came. Did she or didn't she get on the plane? Neither of us knew the answer!

        Deaf friends have recounted similar experiences. They watch a TV show or movie without captioning and then, suddenly, they've missed a critical piece of the story because it was spoken away from the camera or they just couldn't get it.

        For 20 years now, closed captioning has been growing on many network television programs and home videos. Its equivalent for visually impaired audiences, video description, was born a short decade ago.

        In both instances, technology mixed with human ingenuity kicks in an added element for viewers with sensory disabilities. For 20 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, closed captioning provides written text translation of the spoken dialogue that cannot be heard or heard clearly.

        For the 12 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired, video description adds a spoken explanation of key visual elements (gestures, action, descriptions of characters) which cannot be seen or seen clearly. Both technologies bring all viewers fully into the circle of entertainment and information television offers, and both are at points of promise for growth.

        Last year, the FCC increased the numbers of hours to be captioned and described, making April 2002 the deadline. Public television has been the leader in both formats. It is unusual today to find a PBS program that is not closed captioned, and many hours of weekly PBS programming time carry video description. (Nova, Nature, American Experienceand Masterpiece Theatre head the list of described programs for adults, while children with visual disabilities can be clued into Mister Rogers and Arthur.)

        Maybe when you get something some of the time, it makes you appreciate more fully what you're missing. In October, I received letters from readers wishing election campaign spots would include closed captioning. (Would greater awareness of deaf voters have affected the Florida recount?) And in November, I received excited e-mails praising Channel 9 for its addition of captioning to evening news broadcasts.

        In December, the Weather Channel announced a plan to dou ble its hours of closed captioned broadcasts beginning this month. Expanding from 10 to 20 hours a day (beginning daily at 5 a.m. and ending at 1 a.m.), the Weather Channel will provide captioned translations of all announcers' comments. Because most comments are spontaneous, the captioning will be done live, meaning that National Captioning Institute operators will key in words spoken by announcers as they are heard for an instantaneous on-screen translation.

        The Weather Channel is the first large network to make such a commitment, well ahead of any mandate. Closer to home, many hope local channels will take the hint and, besides captioning the news and weather, add an audible equivalent to those visual-only emergency messages that scroll so silently across the screen.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:


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