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A 'Pen Alt ee' on TV's Closed Captioning

©05 The Media Desk

[NOTE: No Undo Disparagement of the Closed Captioning System is intended. The Desk will welcome and post emails discussing the topic from other points of view. thank you ]

        Sometimes the Desk and its family will sit and read TV.
        Yes. READ Television.

        You know. That little known, seldom mentioned hobby where a family sits in front of the boob tube and laughs out loud at the nonsense scrolling across the bottom of the screen from those good folks that bring you Closed Captioning.

        It's at it best during live broadcasts like sporting events. That is almost understandable. How can somebody possibly type some of the nonsense that comes out of Network Sports Broadcasters mouths in a way that is remotely coherent?
        Dennis Miller in his heyday on Monday Night Football gave the captioners fits.
        And while they are always a couple of seconds behind the chatter from the booth, they can usually hit the high points.
        It's just good clean fun watching a NASCAR race with the captioning on. We have become especially adept at catching verbal phrases that should give the people typing a pause and sometimes they exceed our expectation a couple of seconds later.
        For instance, during the 2005 Tournament of Roses Parade. The CC folks just went berserk while the HGTV commentators had adjective fits describing some of the floats. After about the third or fourth "astonishingly elegant brocade of exquisite presentations of 'whatever the flowers name was'" in less than a minute sometimes there was a pause while the typist untangled their fingers…. Or got a shot of Scotch. Maybe both.
        Another good one is football games when Stan Muscrovisistky gets the ball on a triple reverse and there's a penalty when Demetrius LeBourgue holds Killer Nostrphist and there's another flag for celebration or a false start or something and the commentators talk about it for two minutes while the officials sort it out. To watch the people who transcribe these things try to keep up without butchering the names too badly is just hilarious.

        OK. Those are live events. We all understand how hard that is to do. Especially if you are somewhat unfamiliar with the jargon and expressions used during track and field or something.
        Which brings back the captioning during the 2004 Summer Olympics where Russia was spelled 'Rusha' and assorted variations thereof, Marathon (the battle, the town, and the event) was dubbed Mar Thon, and some of the more obscure countries participating were rendered into things you'll never see in National Geographic.
        Back to the subject at hand.

        The Desk has to use the Closed Captioning feature at times. You see, it’s a bit on the hard of hearing side. When there is a lot of background noise or side chatter, it simply cannot hear the TV. To avoid complaints from the family, neighbors, and the crews of the United States Air Force's C-5's who take off over the house, it will use the CC feature during a game to stay somewhat up on the action without turning the surround sound up to Wall Of Noise levels most recently heard at a Ramones tribute concert.
        At times there are three, four, sometimes more, women in the living room with the Desk when something only it wants to watch is on (which would be a documentary on the Silk Road or something like that). Then it will use the CC feature in self defense. That way they can 'visit' as they call it, or 'chatter' as the Desk calls it, without interrupting the program
        Now, get this picture. The show the Desk is watching is taped, in one case, a dozen years ago, and its now being rebroadcast on PBS or the History Channel or whatever. And the Desk is using the Closed Captioning. And the Captioning has errors in it that even the Desk, who is not a World Class Proofreader (as any regular Desk reader knows), notices. Notices, points out to the people in the room with it, and we all laugh.
        These are mistakes in things that Are Not Live. There was no rush to transcribe the spoken word as it was spoken. Yes there was a production schedule, but it wasn't measured in seconds. OK, it can take dozens of man-hours (and thousands of dollars) to work up the Closed Captions for a regular TV show. Even using modern computers and in line editing programs. And today there are hundreds of channels, with dozens of shows that ALL need captioning. But come on….
        Let's look at some test cases, for instance, Major Motion Pictures from, a dozen years ago or more.
        The errors in some classic movies are almost inexcusable.
        Sit back and watch a horse opera from John Wayne's heyday. Or say, one of the WWII movies made in the sixties. Or even a classic musical from MGM. Anything, with the captioning on.
        Many times… not every time, no, but many times, the transcription seems to have been done on a keyboard that is missing some letters. Or by somebody that doesn't understand English. Or by somebody that wasn't actually listening to the movie or reading the script or whichever they used that day. Or maybe some combination of the above, a lit cigarette, and a phone propped up to their ear while they talk to their bookie.
        This is even on a DVD or VHS tape that was supposed to have been remastered. If you are going to all that trouble and expense, why not run the captioning through again? Maybe even have it……
        …. ….. … edited?

        OH NO! HE USED THE 'E' WORD! THIS must be serious!!!


        At the end of every sports broadcast and some of the other shows the Desk watches with the captioning on… The Desk will say it here and now, it has no idea even if there IS captioning on sit coms and reality shows, it doesn't watch them… there is a disclaimer about how the captioning is provided by whoever does it (everybody from the US Dept of Education to the Network's Sports or News divisions to some Charitable Foundation or other, almost anybody with a checkbook) and they are NOT responsible for errors or inaccuracies in the transcription.
        Well. Fine. Is NOBODY checking this stuff?
        No one ever sits back and wonders which chimpanzee they pulled out of the "Take 1000 chimps with typewriters and…" experiment to transcribe the show?

        The Desk can hear. Sometimes. Sort of… Just don't ask its wife about that.
        It uses the captioning as an aid, or maybe a crutch. But it does not depend on it to know what is going on. Besides, it can usually call the play, describe the route, and then spot the penalty before the flag is thrown during a football game and even if not, it knows the hand signals better than some high school refs and most networks run the bug in the corner with the score, and the good ones have a possession indicator. So that's no problem.
        And during NASCAR season, it watches the race with the volume on the TV down and the radio on. So that's no problem.
        Hockey? Well, it's no problem this year that's for sure.

        But what about those who are deaf, have not spent years in a press box, and want to know what happened on the field? Was the play actually a 'fleet icker'? Was that what legendary Dallas Cowboy's coach Tom Landry called that move?
        Or what if they are watching a movie and are actually paying attention to the dialogue as transcribed on the screen?
        Heaven help 'em.
        All 25 million of them in America alone.

        Closed Captioning is a wonderful thing. And on modern TVs you can get it in Spanish. Maybe in Croatian or Mandarin Chinese too.

        But who's checking to see if what is on the screen is halfway reflective of the actual dialogue with minimal errors (like those rows of boxes and dashes the Desk wonders about during M*A*S*H episodes on DVD) that destroy the meaning of whatever the captioning is trying to get across.

        NO! The Desk is not calling for a Federal Closed Captioning Review Board to check behind the typists in the control room or out in the truck or wherever they are (sometimes the Desk wonders which bar they set the TTY machine up in).
        MOST OF THE TIME, the captioning is pretty close, or at least as near to the actual spoken word as it can be. But sometimes….
        Sometimes… it seems that they have just gotten sloppy.
        There needs to be some sort of oversight. Review. Editing even, of things that Are Not Live.
        But in the meantime… to those hard working people who do it….
        Thanks for some really good laughs.


[NOTE:, Monday Night Football, The Summer Olympics, M*A*S*H, and all other, associated names and identifying marks are registered trademarks of their respective owners. The Desk is not affiliated in any way with any of them.
Thank you]

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