Skip to main content

More Than Meets the Eye

While visiting Omaha, Neb., for a convention last year, Cheryl Heppner stopped on her way to a lunch meeting to check out an emergency weather report airing on the restaurant TV. Tornadoes had been sighted in the area, according to an on-screen headline.

Were any twisters sighted nearby, she wondered. Unfortunately for Heppner, who is deaf, specifics of the report were provided in voice only, without closed captioning or any other helpful graphic.

“We knew we were in Omaha but had no idea in which county Omaha was located,” says Heppner, vice chair for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumer Advocacy Network. She and other advocates for the deaf are hoping to pressure broadcasters into providing more-frequent and more-accurate captioning, not just for emergencies but for entertainment programming as well.

Because of complaints by deaf viewers, the FCC since February has fined six stations for failing to provide required captioning during wildfires and tornado alerts in the past two years. But it's not just the need to protect lives that is motivating the group. Captioning of entertainment is also an important item on their agenda, they say, because the ability to fully enjoy TV—one of America's most pervasive culture forces—is critical to ensuring deaf people take part in the country's social life.

However, captioning of entertainment shows is often filled with typos, they say. Deaf viewers recently peppered TV chat rooms with complaints about Fox's May 10 episode of American Idol, in which closed captions provided wrong phone numbers for casting votes. Another frequent problem: Captioners make non sequiturs in dialogue by mistakenly typing a word that sounds like the one intended for viewers.

“Broadcasters have done poorly in complying with requirements that ensure that all citizens have access to the same level of information,” says Kelby Brick, director, law and advocacy, National Association of the Deaf. “The [American Idol] episode exemplifies a more widespread problem in captioning accuracy.”

A handful of errors?

TV stations and cable and satellite operators have been required to provide closed captioning since 1998, when the FCC began phasing in an ever ­increasing quota on captioned programming. Currently, stations must provide 1,350 hours of captioned programming each quarter, roughly 16 hours a day. By Jan. 1, 100% of all new programming must be captioned.

Captioning of pre-recorded shows runs between $400 and $1,000 per half-hour. For live programming, costs can run five times as much.

Because of the extra cost of employing typists to capture live dialogue, the FCC gives stations and pay-cable operators a break on real-time captions. For news reports, programmers can run text of prepared news scripts in the captioning rather than what is actually said live. For emergency weather reports, stations may rely on other on-screen visuals such as charts and maps rather than closed captioning, which can be seen only if a viewer activates the feature on a set.

Advocates for the deaf are urging the FCC to do away with those exemptions.

Broadcasters and cable operators say they've done a good job complying with captioning requirements and say the community is jumping on a handful of errors to kill a few exemptions that do little to diminish deaf viewers' access to TV while greatly alleviating programmers' burdens.

“Captioning complaints appear to be rare and are corrected as quickly as possible,” the National Cable & Telecommunications Association told the FCC in comments filed last fall.

“We do a lot of things visually to assist the hard of hearing,” says Jerald Fritz, vice president of Allbritton Communications, owner of WJLA Washington, which was fined $8,000 for a captioning error during tornado-alert coverage last year. “We were disappointed the commission went after that one isolated statement. Broadcasters have taken extraordinary steps to comply with the rules.”