Captions, Part 1

Q I’m planning on a high-definition production that I want to be able to market to as many outlets as possible. As I work through budgeting, I’m perplexed by the plethora of options as far as how I’m to deliver my program. While I’m getting a handle on tape formats and online needs, there’s one aspect that I really feel like I’m in the dark with—captions. It seems to be a bit of black magic to make them happen. I’m not sure who should do it and when. It seems like I need to provide some sort of captions with my production, but I’m not sure of the best way to do this. Can I just create one universal HD master with captions and go from there? Will that give me all the captioning I need for all of my various needs?
Terry D.

A Talking about captions isn’t as sexy as talking about rolling shutter or 4:2:2 vs. 4:4:4. Okay, I realize that isn’t sexy either, but you get my drift. They don’t seem important in the whole scheme of things when there are so many other elements to be concerned about. But let’s look at a possible scenario.

Say you came to me—in this case, a network television program buyer—to pitch your program. You would go through your whole pitch, show me promos, teasers, etc. I let you go through your whole presentation, interrupted by several phone calls as I’m a busy network executive, and then I lean forward and tell you that a percentage of the audience on my channel wouldn’t watch your show.

You would argue that they haven’t seen the promos. Your show has good writing, good actors and great cinematography—how can it miss? What if, after all your pleading, I said that even if they watched the promo they still wouldn’t watch your show? Or, what if I told you that the FCC wouldn’t let me show your program?

What’s the problem in this scenario? Captions. If your show doesn’t have captions, it misses those in the audience who need to see captions in order to watch a program. In fact, the FCC requires captions on programming broadcast on channels that it regulates. Although there are some exceptions to the captioning requirement (see, TVs larger than 13 inches have been required to have a closed-caption decoder since 1993.

Captions aren’t just for people who have a complete loss of hearing. Many people have impaired hearing. They can hear some things, but still need captions to enjoy a television show. And as the phrase goes, "With the aging baby boomer population…," more and more viewers require assistance in order to watch TV. A big part of that assistance is captions. They’re also useful for people who are still learning English.

In addition, there are situations where viewers leave captions on: in public areas like health clubs and bars or when watching programming that has strong accents or rapid, quiet dialogue. In short, captioning adds to your audience.