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July 3, 2003

Taking the words from our mouths

From: NBC, DC - Jul 3, 2003

I.J. Hudson , Tech Reporter

As the live news conference is broadcast, so are the words through the skilled hands of a realtime captioner and technology. Much like a court reporter, the captioner uses a stenotype machine. An hour program, at 250 words a minute, may require 14-thousand strokes.

The symbols are fed into a computer-based dictionary that sends the full text back to the broadcast facility to be added to the video being transmitted. It's more than converting what's heard to text. It's also context: "You have to stay abreast of current events, sporting events," says Darlene Parker, the National Captioning Institute's Realtime Captioning Supervisor. "You need to know which Jason Williams you are talking about when it comes up on SportsCenter. Is it the basketball Jason Williams, or is it another one? Because there are many different names that have several different spellings, and you need to make sure you get the right one."

TV pictures are made up of lines. The captions are broadcast on line 21. You see it only if your set has captioning turned on. Where that captioning appears is up to the broadcaster. It's generally at the bottom for news or commercials, or at the top for sports. Some very busy screens provide little choice.

In the early 80's, it took magic boxes called decoders to make captioning appear on the screen. They weren't cheap. Those decodes have shrunk to a chip in the TV set. Captioning originally was designed to bring the words of television to the deaf and hard of hearing. But it quickly grew to be useful in noisy places, as an English source for immigrants, and even as a reading helper for children:

Jack Gates, NCI's CEO of Operations, says Saturday morning cartoons are a good reading source for kids: "We urge folks to leave the sound on or turn it off, but definitely turn the captioning on, and the kids learn to read very, very easily. And it makes a difference when they actually get into school."

While technology helps, the human element is very strong. Gates says captioning likely will be a manual process for the immediate future. A black box that converts audio to verbatim text may be a decade away.

Captioning is very human. They must translate what they see and hear into text. Sometimes they must keep "typing" during tragedies, like September 11th. "And the great thing is, you can sit there with tears running down your face. No one's going to see you, but keep captioning and knowing that someone out there needs the information is what keeps you going," says Parker.

Closed captioning is also available on the new digital channels.

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