Real-Time Captioners

The refined skills of real-time captioners are called upon every day to bring the latest news, sports, and entertainment to a diverse group consisting not only of the deaf and hard-of-hearing, but also young children learning to read and those learning English as a second language. While captioning a live program, meeting, or other event may seem rather straightforward on the surface, there is a great deal of work, anxiety, and preparation that goes into ensuring that the words appearing on screen come out as smoothly and effortlessly as possible. Real-time captioning requires much dexterity and discipline to be able to reach the higher speeds required—250 words a minute—and good brain-to-hand coordination to get it all down quickly and accurately.

There is also much preparation work that must be done by real-time captioners before they can caption a live television broadcast. It takes about one and a half to two hours to prepare for an average news broadcast, using preparation materials obtained from the broadcaster and the captioner's own research. (Special broadcasts such as holiday parades, the Super Bowl, or the Olympics can take days or even weeks of preparation.) Captioners call this pre-show preparation dictionary-building.

Captioners working for established captioning houses will usually have access to all types of reference materials—everything from Star Stats: Who's Whose in Hollywood to the Congressional Staff Directory. Captioners working on their own will want to think about what kinds of materials to include in their own libraries.

Real-time captioners prepare for a job by going through resource materials to find words that might come up during a broadcast, and then develop steno codes that they will use to "write" these words when the words come up during the broadcast. It is important that captioners test all the briefs developed for complicated names to make sure they are translating properly. Because captioners will hear names and words during the broadcast that they have not prepared dictionary entries for, they must learn to "write around" the actual words and listen for titles. In this way captioners can write "The former Secretary of State" instead of "Condoleezza Rice," for example.

While striving to keep them to a minimum, captioners will occasionally make mistakes that go out over the air. For example, in real-time captioning, the phrase "Olympic tryouts," which would require the captioner to type five key strokes on a stenotype machine, might come out (and actually did) as "old limp pig tryouts" if strokes are entered that the computer cannot match correctly.

CART reporters also work in classroom settings, where they might be seen with a notebook computer and steno keyboard, sitting next to a deaf person. CART reporters write down everything that happens, making sure the notebook computer screen is turned so the deaf person can see it. To help the client better understand what is going on, they may paraphrase or interpret the proceedings, rather than create a verbatim record, as in a courtroom. Real-time reporters can also cover meetings, with captions shown on large projection screens. Additionally, computer technology allows highly skilled court reporters to provide real-time captioning in the courtroom, which has great value for large numbers of deaf or hard-of-hearing judges, attorneys, and litigants, or those who have difficulty understanding English. Also, judges and attorneys can scroll back to earlier statements during the trial and mark text for later reference.

One major difference between real-time captioning for television broadcast and other live-display settings and verbatim reporting, as is frequently done in courtrooms and lawyers' offices, is that captioning's main purpose is to let the viewer who is deaf or hard-of-hearing understand the story being told on the screen. It is not enough to listen only for the phonetic strokes; the real-time captioner must also listen for context.

Before beginning even limited on-air captioning, captioner trainees must spend at least three to six months in training, eight hours a day, five days a week, and up to one year of real-time captioning before doing certain specialized programming. As a vital part of the production team, captioners must also become intimately familiar with the programs they are captioning to know what to expect and to anticipate the unexpected.

A typical day for a captioner trainee would include preparing for a practice broadcast by creating a job dictionary, then writing that practice broadcast for supervisors, who would make suggestions as to editing, brief form, style, and format. Later, the trainee would review the broadcast and make the necessary dictionary entries. Trainees would sit in on a variety of broadcasts with more experienced captioners.

Real-time captioning for television is generally performed in a production control room, equipped with several television sets and networked computer systems, giving the environment a high-tech look and feel. Sometimes, one captioner will write a show alone; sometimes two captioners will share a show, depending on whether there are commercials or not. No captioner can maintain a high accuracy level without taking regular breaks. On a show with no commercials, two captioners will typically switch back and forth about every 10 minutes.

As a show gets closer to airtime, the environment in the control room becomes tense, as the real-time captioner scrambles to get last-minute information in the computer. Then a deep breath, and the countdown begins… "Good evening, I'm Diane Sawyer."

The captioner strokes the steno keys while listening to the live broadcast, transcribing the broadcast accurately while inserting correct punctuation and other symbols. (Double arrows at the beginning of a sentence indicate that a new speaker is speaking.) Those strokes are converted to electronic impulses, which travel through a cable to the computer. The steno strokes are matched with the correct entries on the captioner's personal dictionary. That data is then sent by modem to the broadcast site, where it gets added to the broadcaster's video signal. Within two to three seconds, people across the country can see those captions—if they have televisions with a built-in decoder chip or a set with a decoder connected to it.

Some kinds of captioning can be done from home, mainly broadcasts for local television stations. The equipment needed (which may be provided by the employer) includes a computer, modem, steno machine, and the appropriate software. Captioners may even choose to work for companies that specialize in producing captions remotely, with just an audio feed, thereby allowing more home-based operations. Getting started in the business, however, usually requires an on-site presence, until confidence and trust is established. Obviously, live events that are not broadcast require a real-time captioner on site.



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