Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Why are television captions so bad?

The closed captions on television are often wrong. I was thinking about this while watching U2 perform at the inauguration of the Clinton Presidential Library on C-SPAN. The C-SPAN captions had U2 singing. "Some day, bloody some day... some day, bloody some day," and so on all the way through the song.

It seems to vary from time to time or from show to show (probably, from transcriber to transcriber). Sometimes the captions will be quite good with few mistakes, but sometimes they will be unreadable, consistent gibberish.

Granted, real-time transcription may not be easy, but for any program that isn't live, the transcribers should have access to the script. Even live shows could be broadcast with a few-second delay. In the case of the library inauguration, the transcribers could have been given a copy of the planned song lyrics. Why don't the same market dynamics that result in TV personalities being paid large amounts of money, act to devote enough money to the captions to get them right?

It's not just the audience of old deaf people we're talking about after all, but the audience of people watching television in bars, in airports, in hairdressers, in stores, and possibly in the workplace.


At 4:41 AM, December 17, 2004, Blogger Chris said...

I have wondered about this before, but never enough to look into it. Gibberish captions are typically when the reception is poor, so I assume there is a device in the TV itself that is attempting to transcribe them phonetically. (Maybe instead they're encoded phonetically as part of the signal, and when that signal gets degraded, the result is gibberish.) Now that we have satellite TV, the captions are much better.


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