Deaf Web Users Fear Being Left Behind
As TV Shows Stream Onto the Internet
By ANDREW LAVALLEE
October 25, 2006
The Internet has been a boon to deaf computer users, giving them easy access to a wide variety of information and breaking down communication barriers. But many of those users feel left behind by one of the Internet's fastest-growing segments: online video.
Though television networks and movie studios are rapidly expanding into Internet distribution, few online videos offer the closed captioning that companies are required by law to offer to TV viewers. The major networks provide full-length episodes of some of their most popular shows on the Web, including hits like "Lost" and "Survivor," but none of them include captions. Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes store sells downloads of more than 200 TV shows, but doesn't offer versions with captions, and the company's popular iPod player doesn't support them.
The absence of online captions has emerged as a hot topic in the deaf community. The media providers say they are held back by technological hurdles, and point out that online distribution of TV content is still in its infancy. But advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing say the lack of captions is a slight, since most programs have already been transcribed to comply with Federal Communications Commission rules. They are pushing to update government regulations to cover the Internet.
"It's like history repeating itself from TV to Internet," said Jim House, a spokesman for Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc., a Silver Spring, Md., deaf advocacy group. Groups lobbied networks to caption shows starting in the 1980s, he said. Regulations put in place in the 1990s by the FCC and Congress required TV manufacturers to make sets compatible with closed-captioning signals, and set a timetable for networks to include captions with their broadcasts. While captions are now common on U.S. broadcasts, it wasn't until January of this year that they became mandatory for all English-language programs produced since 1998.
"I'm hoping we do not have to wait another 25 years" to bring captioning to Internet video, Mr. House said.
The FCC rules that require TV shows to include captions don't apply to online programs (one exception1 requires federal agencies to caption speeches and other videos they provide online). Some groups, including the National Association for the Deaf, are lobbying lawmakers to expand the captioning requirements in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to include the Internet.
According to the National Institutes of Health, between 500,000 and 750,000 people in the U.S. are "profoundly" deaf, and 32.5 million American adults have some degree of hearing loss. The numbers are expected to increase as the population grows older.
"We shouldn't have to be legislating this anymore," said Rosaline Crawford, an attorney with the National Association for the Deaf, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Maryland. "If you've got captions on your program that's broadcast on TV, it can't be rocket science to take those captions and put them on the Internet."
There are technology constraints to online captioning that don't exist in TV broadcasts. For TV broadcasts, producers generally use outside companies to create captions for programs, which are then transmitted using a standard format that can be read by TV sets.
But on the Web, video is served up using a variety of popular software players, including Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player, Apple's Quicktime, RealNetworks Inc.'s RealPlayer and Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash Player. All of the players are capable of including captions with video, but each has a different -- and incompatible -- way of handling them. "It's fabulously complicated to translate TV captions into online formats," said Joe Clark, an accessibility consultant who has extensively studied closed captioning, and writes about it on his Web site2.
Still, Mr. Clark is critical of slow progress networks are making with online captioning. One problem, he said, is that large media companies often have different divisions handling broadcast and online distribution, so captions can get lost in the shuffle. He said he believes TV networks are underestimating demand for online captions.
Representatives at ABC and NBC said the networks are looking into online captioning, but declined to provide details. Fox and CBS said they have no plans to caption the Web versions of their entertainment programs. But CBSNews.com, which serves up a live, online version of "CBS Evenings News with Katie Couric," is in talks with a company to provide online captioning, said Michael Sims, director of news and operations for the site. "We have been working to determine what the best standard to do this is," he said. "We're in the meeting stage."
An Apple spokesman said the company's iTunes store and iPod media players don't support closed-captioning, but said the next version of the company's Macintosh operating system will make it easier for its QuickTime video software to integrate closed-captioning text.
"The Internet has traditionally been a place where I could, as a deaf person, go and get equal access to information," said Jared Evans, a 32-year-old software developer in San Diego. "The vast majority of content on the Internet has been text and images which you don't need hearing abilities in order to understand the content."
Mr. Evans said the boom in online video has been "a step backward" for deaf users: While material is easier to access, the lack of captioning makes it less useful than traditional TV broadcasts. "These same companies already have decades of experience in adding captions to content on TV, but are opting to not do the same with their online content."
Joseph Santini, a 28-year-old social worker in New York who is deaf, was excited when Apple released a version of its iPod player capable of playing videos. "The only time I have for watching TV, like many others these days, is on the subway," said Mr. Santini. But he was disappointed to learn that the TV shows for sale on iTunes didn't carry captions. "Entertainment aside, what about my future employment prospects? How long before it becomes standard to get all news, information about the city, on video-capable devices? I see this coming, I want to be part of the future."
A few companies have taken some steps to offer captions for online video. In July, Time Warner Inc.'s AOL began offering captions for some CNN newscasts. Working with captioners at WGBH, a Boston public broadcasting station, AOL serves up about 20 captioned stories a day, said Tom Wlodkowski, AOL's director of accessibility. CNN doesn't offer captioning for clips on CNN.com.
Google Video in September began letting users submit captions with their videos. The captions can be toggled on and off by viewers by hitting a "CC" button while the video is playing in Google's custom software. Although the site's selection of captioned videos is small, Google Inc. now asks major content providers to include captions whenever possible, said Ken Harrenstien, a deaf software engineer at Google who helped develop the feature. "It's not so much that it's a technical issue," he said. "More a process of consciousness-raising.
Write to Andrew LaVallee at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Wednesday, October 25, 2006
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