Thursday, December 15, 2011

Muse of the Week: Happy Olive Days

I had the best time watching the KPTV-12 Portland morning news in the fitness center yesterday morning. Nothing makes time on a treadmill more bearable than a good laugh, and the closed captioning provided this in abundance. Perhaps the best item of the morning was a piece on the recent troubles of former French president "Joshua Rock," but I also greatly enjoyed the "water cooler" story on a bear found in a New Jersey man's "salary" (cellar), the periodic "Czech" on the traffic and a topical piece on the "Olive Days."

Amusement value aside (and these were particularly bad captions... I wonder about the enunciation of those commentators), closed captioning is a tremendously valuable service for the deaf and hard of hearing. My own 95-year-old grandmother is one of millions, I'm sure, who find this service useful -- and probably gets the occasional laugh, too, that is lost upon us hearing folk who don't regularly read the captions.

All this led me to wonder about the history behind closed captioning. Evidently the service started in March 1980, although tests were conducted as early as 1971 to determine the possibility of using a portion of a network's broadcast signal to send captions. The process of working out the details was undertaken by the Public Broadcasting System and meanwhile, early permutations first ran on "The French Chef" with Julia Child. In 1979, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare established the National Captioning Institute, charged with performing the task of captioning. The closed-caption television service formally began on March 16, 1980 for prerecorded content, and by 1982 technology had been developed to allow for live, real-time captioning. By mid-1993, all televisions sold in the United States with screens larger than 13 inches were required to have closed-caption decoders.

Captioning continues to be undertaken by real people; live captioning, for example, is done using a computerized system based upon stenographic shorthand used by court reporters and other people who have to transcribe quickly. According to the National Captioning Institute, it can take up to a year to train even someone who already works as a court reporter to do captioning for live content. Live captioners must type at up to 225 words a minute, and the service strives to maintain a 98 percent accuracy rate (the folks I was watching this morning must really have been mumblers).

The National Captioning Institute has a Web site with much more information at Meanwhile, Happy Olive Days to all of you! Uncle Sam's Attic will take a week's break.

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