Sunday, February 29, 2004

Fed censors threaten television captioning

Alive and well

Debra Kendrick

I didn't have any deaf or hearing impaired friends when I was growing up, but I remember reading a book about Helen Keller with my friend Carla up in our favorite tree. The manual alphabet was on the last page, and we studied the shapes of those letters formed by fingers and tried talking with our hands for a while.

I thought about deaf kids then, and I remember thinking that deaf kids couldn't watch TV shows because they wouldn't know what anybody was saying.

Eventually, of course, that all changed.

Launched more than 20 years ago by PBS station WGBH-TV in Boston, closed captioning brought deaf and hearing impaired viewers into the mainstream of television viewing. Today, every prime-time program on commercial networks and on PBS is captioned, as are many daytime and cable programs. Since 1993, every TV set manufactured with a 13-inch or larger screen is, by law, equipped with a caption decoder. And, as so often happens when a structure or activity is made accessible to people with disabilities, lots of people who aren't deaf are enjoying the benefits, too. In airports, bars and anywhere else where noise makes the audio portion hard to hear, even people with perfect hearing are reading those captions. The service helps children learn to read, and helps adults learning English as a second language.

But all of that is on the brink of terrible change. If recent U.S. Department of Education decisions are executed, nearly 200 programs will be cut from the captioned rosters. And 28 million deaf and hearing impaired viewers will be back where they were 30 years ago.

But no, when you look a little closer at the situation, we're actually stepping further back down the culturally equitable ladder than a mere 30 years. The decision wasn't made to save money, so much as to decree which programs are "inappropriate" for deaf viewers.

"The department wants to ensure that over 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are not exposed to any non-puritan programming - never mind that the rest of the country may be allowed to be exposed to such," said Kelby Brick, associate executive director of the National Association of the Deaf. But listen to some of the programs that are on the panel's "disapproved" list.

Reruns of Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie and Sanford and Son are among the 200 "inappropriate" programs. So are Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Disney's Lizzie McGuire. Law and Order was deemed "too intense" and sporting events featuring NASCAR races, Professional Golf Association tournaments, National Football League or National Basketball Association games won't be captioned either. Now it may seem silly to worry about whether little deaf kids know what the characters are saying on Scooby-Doo or deaf teenagers catch the witticisms on The Simpsons, but it is not silly at all. Television is an intrinsic part of our culture, and to cut deaf kids off from popular programs is to kick them out of the cultural loop.

What isn't clear at this point is which programs will actually lose their captioning, because networks are picking up the costs for some. What also isn't clear is what criteria were used to determine which programs would lose captions.

One irony here is that the FCC ruled two years ago that all programs would be captioned by 2006. So, we're taking a step backward before moving forward? It's hard to know whether to get seriously stirred up about censorship here or just shrug with embarrassment at some of the pathetic actions taken by some of our government agencies. I do wonder, though, if any of the caption cutters have ever watched a favorite program with the sound turned off.

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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