The Inequality of Closed Captioning

By law, closed captioning services must be provided for all programming produced by streaming video services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Also, captions must be provided by broadcasters for all content distributed across the Internet if captioned when originally presented on-air.

In addition, the issue of closed captioning services has even taken to the skies. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in 2014 proposed a bill that closed captioning services  be accessible to all Deaf and hard-of-hearing passengers on U.S. airliners that provide video entertainment for paying passengers. We’ve come a long way, baby. Or have we?

Many open-sourced captions are manufactured via machine or voice-recognition software. While these methods are less expensive than hiring human captioners, they are limited in their ability to decipher unclear accents, rapid speech, and significant background sounds, and are at present completely unable to cope with any scene in which more than one person speaks at a time.

While the rich aural experience featured in streaming video and television may be likened to an oil painting by a master, machines can deliver at best the merest pencil sketch representation, only hinting at the richness and complexity of a program’s aural expression. Hiring trained and experienced people to transcribe and caption programming is not as cheap as using machines for captioning, but the cliche “you get what you pay for” definitely applies here.

Crowdsourced captioning services perform better, but they have limited availability and may be uneven in quality as they’re produced by enthusiastic fans of different shows but not necessarily by professionals in the captioning field. So, hard-of-hearing fans of Downton Abbey may experience adequate captioning, but those who enjoy less popular fare are more likely to have the misfortune of being left with a poorer understanding of what’s happening on their preferred programs.

The Closed Captioning Project LLC believes that true equality comes from not the availability of merely any closed captioning services but the accessibility of accurate captioning to all viewers who can benefit from this service, whether they be Deaf, hard-of-hearing, children learning English or viewers for whom English is a second language.

Yes, closed captioning services are required by law. But does that mean that they’re available in fact? And does it mean that the services provided are accurate?