This season, ABC's Monday Night Football became the first live TV sports series to be fully closed-captioned for the hearing-impaired. Until now only supplementary information, such as downs and yards to go, was flashed on the screen. Now the deaf can invest in a small decoder box and read on the screen just about every word uttered during a telecast.
For the most part, the breakthrough has been well received, although "sometimes the commentary drives us crazy," says Muriel Strassler, 36, a Redskins fan from Cheverly, Md., who has been deaf since childhood. "But don't get me wrong," she continues, "captions add a new dimension. They provide more color and background, like injury reports and predictions. I never dreamed that football could be so multidimensional."
The hearing-impaired can feel isolated. One deaf TV viewer described the affliction as a glass wall that separates him from the rest of the world, adding that closed-captioned television is a major step toward penetrating it.
With captioning, people who can't listen to a TV program can read it instead. All they need is the decoder box, which is hooked into the set. The box picks up an electronic signal that beams the captions onto the screen—like watching a foreign film with English subtitles.
Captioning is the result of a cooperative effort by the networks, primarily ABC and PBS. It made its debut in March of 1980 and at first only prerecorded shows could be accommodated. The National Captioning Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, needed several days to read over the script, type and fit the captions and then place them on the program videotape.
It wasn't until 1982 that ABC developed the technology to caption a live program, the Academy Awards. Six months later, with funds from the Department of Education, ABC began captioning World News Tonight.
This is how it works. Speed typists in Falls Church, Va. listen to the telecast and produce the captions at about 250 words per minute. Four seconds later they appear on-screen. The speed of this process is largely the result of stenotype machines, the kind used by court reporters. Instead of spelling out each word, the captioner strokes them out phonetically in a form of shorthand. Then a computer connected to the stenotype translates the strokes back into the printed word. These are sent, via phone lines, to the ABC control room in New York City, where they are added to the network signal and transmitted across the country.
The number of televised captioned hours, including cable, has increased eightfold since 1980. CBS broadcasts eight hours, NBC nine and PBS 22. But ABC is the overwhelming leader with 42 hours a week, including its entire prime-time schedule and events such as last year's political conventions and Olympics, and this year's Super Bowl and World Series.
The 21 football telecasts present unique problems to the captioners. Says Darlene Leasure, who handles football, "When I was programming my computer at the beginning of the season, I found 13 Darrels with seven different spellings in the NFL. It's tough keeping all those Darrels straight."
A more immediate problem is the positioning of the caption on the screen. For the news, a roll-up caption is used. However, if the same technique were employed for a football game, the caption would cover up part of the playing field. Thus the pop-up caption was developed, allowing the print to be moved to the least intrusive corner of the screen. Because viewers usually can't see who is talking during a football telecast, the speakers are also identified in the caption.
The demand for this service continues to grow—almost 100,000 homes own decoders—but that's nothing compared to the potential audience of an estimated 16 million hearing-impaired people in the U.S. One problem is the cost of the box, about $200. Also, many people are reluctant to admit that they need such help.
For the networks the problem is sponsorship. Money is the only thing limiting the number of programs captioned. The Department of Education spends roughly $1.7 million to caption news programs. American Express donated $30,000 to caption the L.A. Olympics. Chrysler and ABC pick up the tab for Monday Night Football.
The man most responsible for ABC's dedication to closed captioning is Julius Barnatham, president of Broadcast Operations and Engineering. Barnatham helped launch captioning in the early '70s after company chairman Leonard Goldenson had urged the TV industry to use its technological know-how to help the handicapped. Since then he has been tirelessly trying to bring about increased network captioning so that one day the glass wall may indeed be shattered.
Lisa Twyman is a former SI reporter who now works on the magazine's business side.