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Closed captioning: Get it right, CRTC tells broadcasters

People with hearing problems rely on on-screen text to follow dialogue on television, but have been long been frustrated by the mistakes made by both the humans and computers tasked with converting speech to text in real time.


After filing more than 300 complaints about the quality of closed captioning on Canadian television, Henry Vlug has finally been heard.

Canada's broadcast regulator said Thursday that television stations must improve the quality of their closed-captioning services, setting targets for both speed and accuracy for the first time.

People with hearing problems rely on on-screen text to follow dialogue on television, but have been long been frustrated by the mistakes made by both the hu mans and computers tasked with converting speech to text in real time.

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The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has told broadcasters that, as of September, they must achieve 95-per-cent accuracy in their captioning and that text must not lag speech by more than six seconds.

"It's rare to have a broadcast without any errors," said Mr. Vlug, a retired Vancouver lawyer, who is hearing impaired. "The CRTC had a mostly hands-off policy, and would pass the complaint to the broadcaster and then accept whatever excuse they came up with."

Any regulation at all is a major victory for the country's deaf and hard-of-hearing, which have been fighting for higher standards since at least 1967, when the issue was first raised at a meeting of the Canadian Association of the Deaf.

But broadcasters that must provide the captioning, and whose licence renewals could depend on hitting the targets, worry that enforceable standards will hold them to an unrealistically high standard that will be expensive to achieve.

"Broadcasters must have a reasonable prospect of achieving their regulatory requirements, and when the performance of individual human beings is measured, there can be no guarantees," the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. wrote in its submission arguing against locked-in rules. "Unachievable targets are not appropriate."

Canadian broadcasters produce live closed captioning in one of two ways. The conventional method has a person sitting in front a computer, filing quickly as the on-screen dialogue advances. This is the most accurate method, but also the slowest, with lag times as high as 20 seconds.

Broadcasters have increasingly turned to voice-recognition software. It is fast, but can only understand one voice at a time and has difficulty with accuracy because of the nuances of individual pronunciations.

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It's also expensive. Douglas Flaherty, senior director of broadcasting at Woodbine Entertainment Group, estimated it costs the horse-racing specialty channel $1,600 a programming day to provide closed-caption feeds for the races it broadcasts.

The company found it was spending up to a third of its annual revenue on closed captioning, and decided to pull the plug despite a clause in its licence that requires it to provide the service.

"For an independent company, this is a high-budget item," he said. "Captioning pretty much eliminates revenue."

The lack of adherence is what worries those who have lobbied for changes, such as Jim Roots, executive director of the Canadian Association of the Deaf (which represents about 300,000 hearing-impaired Canadians).

He said that although the CRTC wants the industry to act as its own monitor and will check compliance only if it receives a complaint, he gets the sense that the deaf community is being taken seriously and progress can be made in coming years.

Their next target is getting closed captioning added to television shows posted on the Internet.

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"I get the sense that the CRTC is sick and tired of the barrage of complaints they have received over the years on the subject of poor-quality or missing captioning," Mr. Roots said.

"Any error can thoroughly screw up a telecast. A couple of months ago, the captioning for a report on a playoff hockey game listed Alexander Semin's name as Assembled Moon. Imagine how jarring that is."

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