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All About Eyes, Ears and Errors

I am going to take a personal risk here and respond to this article and the captioning complaints raised by Cheryl Heppner in the story “More Than Meets the Eye” (June 6, page 12). I am a life-long broadcaster. I am a supporter of closed captioning. I am also married to a sign-language interpreter who also advocates for the deaf (thus my personal risk). I am actively involved in helping the only deaf church in Des Moines, Iowa, install a video system so that their messages can be distributed to others in the deaf community. I am therefore not insensitive to the concerns of the deaf community.

Ms. Heppner complains that when she visited Omaha, Neb., there was no closed-captioning information during an emergency weather report about a tornado sighting. But that’s not really valid. A hearing visitor would have been in much the same boat. I live and work in the Des Moines area, and I watch and listen to these types of reports. I can see the maps, read the crawls and hear the weathercaster, and there are many times when I have absolutely no idea where in the state they are talking about. And I live here!

Even her American Idol complaint [a closed caption on Idol’s May 10 Fox telecast provided an incorrect voting phone number] is not particularly valid. In 30 years of working at TV stations, I can’t tell you how many “supers” in a live newscast I have seen with spelling errors or numbers transposed. The entire audience sees this, not just the deaf community.

Can broadcasting do a better job? You bet, and if you look at the capabilities that are being incorporated into DTV, there is a great deal of improvement on the horizon.

We are working with a local college that offers courses in stenography, and we caption a lot of material at our facility. In the prerecorded material, we are very pleased with our accuracy, but that is because the captioner can stop and look up words and essentially edit the content. When you go to the live environment, which was Ms. Heppner’s complaint area, the vendors of the hardware/software systems that are available start talking in terms like “Our captioners aim for 98% accuracy not only in the way they spell the words but in how the words are displayed.” (CaptionMax) or “NCS guarantees our live captioning products to be 98% error-free.” Is the deaf community going to be satisfied with errors in 2 out of every 100 words?

Finally, during a weather emergency, everyone is scrambling to make sense of all of the data and to get the message out to the total audience as clearly as possible. During that stress-filled period, errors will happen. Wrong graphics will be aired, weathercasters will look at the wrong camera, and yes, there will be spelling errors. Hopefully, the community as a whole will recognize the constraints of the situation and will cut the humans involved a little slack.

William T. Hayes

Director of Engineering and Technology

Iowa Public Television

Johnston, Iowa