The Ethics & Otitis Media World Tour

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Monday: The Media Aggro Group

Updated 2001.07.14

Day 5

The Media Aggro Group

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A hop, skip, and jump

Once it was known that I was being whisked to the United States, and given that the distances between New England cities are next to nothing in Canadian terms (ever flown from Toronto to St. John’s?), I decided a visit to WGBH would be in order.

The background to history

I’ve known the Caption Center at WGBH for over 20 years, though obviously no one presently at that facility has been around that long. And in fact, in its current incarnation, the Caption Center is merely an arm of the Media Access Group, under which the Descriptive Video Service and the National Center for Accessible Media also reside. It’s a bit of a fiction, really: This “Media Access Group” business is verbal camouflage intended to reinforce an image of one-stop shopping. You want access? Just send us the tape and we’ll do everything.

Quality standards

Now, the ironic fact about captioning is that the U.S. and Canadian experiences are exactly opposite. We have really quite good real-time captioning (in English, anyway) with absolutely execrable captioning of prerecorded programs. (It’s always been bad and has only been getting worse.) The converse is true in the U.S., where really only Vitac, which hired away all the best writers, does anything remotely resembling acceptable real-time captioning, while the Big Four captioners (the Caption Center, Vitac, NCI, and Captions, Inc.) are all perfectly valid choices for typical television programs and possibly even home video. I can point to generally excellent work from all four firms, though I do think the Caption Center can boast the smartest people, the most advanced technical compatibility, and the most forward-thinking practices.

I don’t play favourites. I back GBH because they’re good at what they do, an assertion I can prove to anyone who cares to do an A-and-B comparison of their work and someone else’s. This is not a case of religious allegiance, along the lines of Macintosh separatism (of which I am certainly guilty) or the excuses fans make for the outrages of enfant terrible megastars (“Oh, that’s our Courtney!”). I respond to quality.

I used to have a direct E-mail contact at three of the Big Four, but that has whittled down to just the Caption Center. Whenever they make a mistake, I report it, and 99 times out of 100 I’m right. (Why wasn’t it caught in the first place? What’s wrong with this picture?)

Notwithstanding those niggly details, I have, however, put a lot of effort into documenting the high-quality work of what is now the Media Access Group, doing so in print articles and online. And I’ve been a supporter of the Caption Center for nearly the entire period of its existence.

Is that any way to treat your friends?

Imagine my surprise, then, to read this response to my innocent question “If I visited you the week of June 25, would it be convenient?”

I know you have a keen eye and ear for captioning and descriptions, but we really don’t want to spend your time here opening up long-winded discussions about style, errors, why do this and why do that. We have these discussions internally, but I feel strongly that it would be extremely counterproductive for you to wear your critic’s hat during your visit.

As a matter of fact, various of our describers and captioners have been quite upset by some of your writings and you and I can’t expect them to take your comments all in the service of better access – this is their life’s work and I hope you can understand that some do not take kindly to the way you write about their work.

If you feel that they’re being too thin-skinned, overly sensitive or are acting against the betterment of makind, so be it. But I would prefer that your visit not include this kind of back and forth. I am very protective of my staff. Sorry.

My, my, my. When did I stop beating my wife?

It seems that my scathing denunciations of incompetent Canadian captioning (and audio description, for that matter) and years of dedicated postproduction quality control of the Caption Center’s work somehow came to be confused in the minds of the staff at GBH. It’s as though I’d spent 2/3 of my life scathingly denouncing them.

It also seems that my previous visit to WGBH (circa 1994), in which I did a walkabout in the Caption Center, sat in on a DVS mix session of Aladdin, and actually ate in the studio commissary, had been completely forgotten. I recall acting like a kid in a candy store. I certainly do not recall donning a beret, brandishing a rifle, and making like Patty Hearst in the Symbionese Liberation Army. (Or Rosanna Arquette in the diner scenes of Pulp Fiction.)

Yet somehow my dear friends at WGBH figured I would not act like a genteel middle-class guest in an ordinary office. Just how was I expected to behave?

After a full day of back-and-forth snatchmails in which I was ignominiously forced to defend my integrity, I was unreservedly invited to visit WGBH. I considered it dishonourable to be forced to justify my existence after being on GBH’s side for two decades. But all’s well that ends well. Right?

Dramatis personæ

At this point we do a Prisoner and begin referring to WGBH staff by number. I don’t want to cause them more embarrassment than they already have drawn onto themselves. Below the first cardinal, no correlation between number and status is intended. As the hero of our story, I am of course Number 6.

Who is Number 1?

Number 1 is the guy who warned me to behave myself if I visited the plant. He doesn’t remember it, but we have met – at the Deaf Way conference in 1989. (I spoke on typographic requirements for captioning for HDTV. I met Number 1 at the trade-show segment, where I pushed random keys on a stenotype keypad and managed to produce the word Auschwitz. Won’t be trying that again.) Over 160 E-mails from Number 1 reside in my folders. (Indeed, I have a total of something like 580 E-mails from the domain.)

Number 1 is not much of a problem. Not a problem at all, really.

It’s Number 2 who’s the problem. I only had to deal with Number 2 because, by bad luck, Number 1 and his colleague Number 5 were away at a conference of their own on June 25 when I visited. Number 2 would be my host for the visit.

Shit hits fan

I knew I was in trouble when Number 2 actually sat me down in a boardroom. I felt like I was about to get fired, though unlike in Philadelphia, WGBH lacks electrically self-opaquing windows so managers can shitcan employees in private. If you’re going to do anything for a guest before embarking on a tour, it’s offer a cup of coffee, not usher him into a private room.

– Well, what would you like to talk about? I am asked.

– I don’t want to “talk.” I’m here for a tour of the whole building.

It is déjà vu all over again as Number 2 launches into virtually the same litany Number 1 had laid on me:

– Well, Joe, you understand that you have angered a lot of people over the years, stepped on a lot of toes. I am not interested in getting into a situation where you’re looking over captioners’ shoulders.

– [Number 1] and I discussed this at length before I even arranged to come here, I told him. We cleared that all up. Why are you giving this back to me now?

– You and I can talk about whatever you like, and I’m certainly willing to give you a quick tour, and I’ll take you to meet [Number 13], but I don’t want to risk having you lob any bombs. I want to avoid any blowups with the people here.

– Well, avoiding “blowups” would depend on the professionalism of your staff, I told him,

very much envisioning being stuck here in this boardroom chatting about the weather, or actually getting frogmarched out of the building.

– Oh, my staff are professional, he replied.

– Then why are you assuming there will be a problem? Just how do you expect me to behave here? I countered.

I gave a quick précis of my previous visit and added a soupçon of ridicule through the Patty Hearst comparison, which, while seemingly campy and excessive, turns out to have accurately embodied Management’s fears of a Munich Olympics–style commando assault by a volatile Kapshun Kween™.

To my great surprise, after a few more rounds of to-and-fro in which I stood my ground absolutely (I wasn’t the one in the wrong), Number 2 relented and led me through the maze of hallways. (The physical plant of WGBH is more drab than you would expect from such a wealthy station, featuring as it does the broadloom carpet, blinding white paint, and fluorescent lighting associated with two-bit insurance offices.)

I had no intention of doing or not doing anything I wouldn’t have done without these two separate rounds of dressing-down, but I did make sure to ask everyone I met if it was actually permitted to speak. Without exception, they didn’t understand what the hell I was getting at. Though everyone had been warned alerted informed I was dropping by, it seems that only Number 1 and Number 2 saw my arrival as a threat. Everyone else was just happy to talk.

The access factory

I walked into a cubbyhole of a room and immediately stumbled upon Number 7, whom I’d met on the previous visit. His new job now concerns so-called DTV, an acronym, seemingly without expansion (obviously the D means digital, as though that tells us much), that encompasses everything we used to know as high-definition or “advanced” TV. Number 80 was also present, a very tall and sincere young lad who had recently joined the team (and who had welcomed me at the WGBH door).

I saw a rack of equipment piled nearly to the ceiling, a veritable layer cake of set-top boxes. (Unix adherents would prefer the locution “set-top boxen.”) A television set appeared to show a soap opera, but a bit too narrow (letterboxed on the left and right sides, not the top) and in strange, unreal contrast, with actors all plasticky-skinned, A.I.-mecha style. Scrollup captions appeared, but were subtly wrong: They were yellow (unnaturally), all three lines were housed in a big bounding box of unchanging size (real captions put a mask behind each character and half a character at either end of a line), and the scrolling was a tad jumpy.

What gave?

Well, I was witnessing a minor miracle: Actual off-the-air reception of a DTV program with captions created for today’s analogue TV “upconverted” or “transcoded” into the new digital format. (If you want numbers, EIA-608 captions were autotranslated into 708.) If and when actual digital broadcasts become commonplace, hundreds of thousands of hours of old programming, with captions soon dating back a full human generation (yes, I was there too), will have to be received properly by the sexy new televisions. Autoconversion will be de rigueur.

And we’re almost there. Number 7 and I were able to compare a nearby analogue television (receiving signals from ordinary cable TV) and the same signal upconverted. Pretty much nothing worked in regular pop-on captioning. The failures were rather hilarious, actually. Scrollup captions don’t work perfectly, either, but the fact they are more than functional means we’re more than halfway there. Not bad.

(The captions on this airing of One Life to Live were yellow as part of a testing procedure. Rather like a barium enema, oldschool 608 captions are dyed yellow to differentiate them from native 708 captions, should any exist.)

Online access

Number 7 ambled along to his regular work and I enjoyed a truly informative and surprising demo from Number 80. I wonder what it’s like to be that tall and broad-shouldered. He probably looks great in a tailored suit. Number 80’s métier is captioning and audio description of online video, a perennially vexing problem I’ve covered at length (first, second, third, fourth).

GBH’s big thing is trying to make closed accessibility actually work. The principle replicates the experience of television: A single signal carries with it every version of itself, and you the viewer merely actuate whatever access feature you may need. This model works fine in television, where you are very unlikely indeed to find four different transmissions of the same channel differing only in the presence or absence of captions and audio descriptions; while there often are regional or dayparted feeds of a given network, feeds are not duplicated out of a need for accessibility.

(We struggle with this problem here in the Dominion. The House of Commons and CPAC have been trying to figure out a way to broadcast main video with simultaneous selectable French and English audio and captions for the better part of a decade. It’s technically possible, but maddeningly incompatible: You can use main audio for the dominant language of your cable system, or main audio for whichever language the speaker is using, but inevitably someone’s gonna be stuck switching to Second Audio Program. Same with captions: Who gets the prime spot of CC1, which absolutely every decoder can receive and display with no especial effort, and who gets bumped to CC3, which only a minority of sets can use? For digital cable and satellite TV, does it make sense to split the signal into all-English and all-French versions?)

In practice, however, there are too many incompatible players and file formats to make closed accessibility work even at the technical level. Theoretically, the platform-neutral markup language known as SMIL could save the day, but I have to wonder how much longer we’re gonna be stuck kissing the frog of SMIL before it transmogrifies into Prince Charming.

I have been pushing the concept of selectable open accessibility: Since we benefit from unlimited channels online, it becomes practicable to provide separate files with access features (or combinations of them, as in simultaneous captions and audio descriptions) pre-enabled. Disc space is cheap, and Akamai or moral equivalent makes it easy to serve enormous instances of very large files simultaneously. It’s an idea. Not a bad one, but merely an idea.

However, Number 80 showed me a demo of A Leading Children’s Program with every known access feature and another that was previously unknown – a deaf host explaining and interpreting the episode in sign language, which I suppose is all well and good but does nothing for me. (Why bother? If you’re going to provide that level of interpretation, you need multiple interpreters to enact the roles of the characters, a theme we will meet again shortly. Yes, theatrical interpreting makes do with only one or two interpreters, but that’s making do. Further, the voice of the actor’s interpreter was not captioned. Do we believe in accessibility or don’t we?)

The demo also gives you verbatim and easy-reader captions and of course audio descriptions. What killed me was the typographic quality of the captions: Perfectly readable proportionally-spaced type, with coloured highlights that followed words as they were spoken (and a different colour, probably not easily distinguished by the colourblind, for hyperlinked words).

I went out on a limb and pegged the font as Officina Sans, and then dug my own grave by chitchatting about the Tiresias font (and its designers’ mortal error of refusing to draw italics). Well, shazam: The font used is Tiresias, which the viewer would have to actually own. Wee bit of a problem there. The last damn thing we need is captions typeset in Arial because nobody owns the “correct” typeface.

Officina (top) vs. Tiresias (bottom)
Officina vs. Tiresias

The advantage of the WGBH approach is selectable font size (and selectable font, I suppose). Though generally discussed in the context of personal preference, the only justification that really holds water is accommodating the visually-impaired, who genuinely need bigger fonts. Indeed, way back in 1989 (at the aforesaid Deaf Way) I called for HDTV sets to include adjustable fonts and a data port for an offscreen display. As with pretty much everything in that paper, what I predicted is what we actually need and what we are getting. (I even predicted Unicode.)

I must say the WGBH demo is quite impressive and obviously usable. It even looks good. So I am willing to be proved wrong in my preference for selectable open access features. At present, however, closed online access doesn’t work.

Describer Siberia

Moving on to “the next station of the cross,” I was ushered to a cubiclette at the intersection of two deserted hallways, where we interrupted a young man, Number 9. Yes, kids, I have actually met an audio describer! (Actually, two, though my pal from my first visit to Access Central has since moved away.) It was kind of a Siberian working environment, given the lonely displacement from other arms of the Descriptive Video Service.

Number 9 was hard at work on an episode of Another Leading Children’s Series, which will make waves once it airs with description. I tittered with glee to find that the old DVS software, written in HyperCard, is still in use on their newfangled iMacs. (The author of the program, my former host at the previous visit, was apparently shitcanned and now works for the competitor that just loves to typeset captions in italics. This selfsame competitor captions both South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Robert Schuller with the Hour of Power. Go figure.)

Each description occupies a card in the stack, with in and out times, a couple of comments fields, and the like. A straightforward system. I learned a few things from Number 9.

  1. If two descriptions are almost consecutive but interrupted by only a word or two, they’ll be doubled up on the same card with the word or two in brackets. Why? Any other way, the narrator would have missed the cue, necessitating a tedious rewind-and-rerecord stage.
  2. When asked to peg some programs whose work he’s particularly proud of, Number 9 cited Psycho and North by Northwest. “Did you feel the heavy weight of Hitchcock on your shoulders?” I asked. No, apparently, but the complexity of the visuals (particularly in the latter, which he described along with a colleague) forced him to scale the mountaintop, as it were.
  3. I asked about subtitled films, which are a bit of a pain in the arse to describe, since you have to transcribe and then read aloud (really, re-enact) all the dialogue in the titles while also carrying out all the usual descriptions. In severe cases (e.g., The Joy Luck Club), you need two narrators, male and female, to act the roles. In others (Star Wars), you get your narrator to actually act while reading subtitles and recede back into quasi-neutrality at other times. Apparently, says Number 9, the toughest case was Sophie’s Choice, fave film of depressives-seized-by-deathforce everywhere, where “five” male characters were all subtitled and had to be differentiated. One also recalls the description of Life is Beautiful, originally billed as applying to the all-subtitled version, though DVS got a break when the variation dubbed by the original actors was released. (That’s not a first, by the way, no matter what the propaganda tells you: One thinks of Omertà.)
  4. They’re learning a few things as they go along. Educational programs require a different approach, the example being a lousy show with a lousy title, Between the Lions, where words onscreen that are presented as learning lessons are actually spelled out by the narrator. (In a previous example, Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, the entire narrative focus changes to a kind of storytelling compatible with preschoolers. “Soon Mr. Rogers will walk through the door and talk to us while he puts on a cardigan sweater” rather than “Mr. Rogers comes in. [pause] He zips up his cardigan.”)
  5. Number 9 had worked at GBH for a while before applying to DVS for a describer gig, which he aptly describes as “getting paid to write.” What’s not to like?

A rather sharp young lad, this Number 9. Indeed, outside of management circles, absolutely everyone I’ve met at WGBH has been very much on the ball.

Fun factoids: Numbers 2 and 9 were appalled to learn that AudioVision Canada runs narrator recording sessions in which the narrator has no access to a monitor to actually watch the show. They don’t even get an audio feed. In other words, every description is recorded as a new isolated snippet, as if stringing together syllables for a voicemail system. Every description is a new audition; every description has the same amazed! surprised! prosody. It’s a disaster. My DVS friends also agreed that hiring actual professional actors (but not recognizable voices) to do the narration works far better than doubling up the job with the description writer or the recording technician, as the Canadians and the Brits do.

Catching up with the Caption Center

A surprise awaited me at the next station of the cross: I was led to the Caption Center per se and simply left alone with Number 13, a fellow I’ve known off and on since at least that fateful year of 1989.

To my knowledge, there are exactly two other people walking the streets of the earth who share my history – a hearing kid who discovers captions and sticks with them. One is Number 13; the second is a librarian in Wisconsin who appears to be scarifyingly similar to me in further ways. Indeed, there seems to be a gene at work given the broad and specific similarities among the three of us, which details I will leave to the reader’s imagination.

I’d met Number 13 at the Deaf Way and on my previous visit, and a week doesn’t go by in which I don’t forward a raft of captioning errors to him. Evidently Number 13 is the inverse Typhoid Mary of the Caption Center, the representative charged with the task of containing the contagion I represent. Fine by me. In fact, despite my 20-year correspondence with the Caption Center, I really haven’t carried on any conversations with (offline) captioners save for Number 13.

The Caption Center at WGBH in Boston is dominated by a big, dimly-lit room with half a dozen workstations lining the walls, a bookcase packed with reference materials, and a whiteboard listing current projects. Each station runs a Windows machine, an oldschool ¾″ VTR, and a set of headphones big enough for a SoHo DJ. I’ve walked through the place twice, going essentially unnoticed on both occasions. (What were Number 1 and Number 2 worrying about?)

I have reflected on this work environment quite a bit. The big open room is useful because you can simply yell over to your friend if you hit a problem. Knowing that you’ve hit a problem is a crucial captioning skill. What do we find in Canadian captioning (and the more-inept U.S. variants)? Well, apart from the fact that everyone doing offline captioning in Canada appears to be either

  1. a 22-year-old Oriental girl still living in her parents’ basement who’s just happy to be putting my poli-sci degree to use, or
  2. a 24-year-old Woody’s sweaterfag who is just happy to be out of customer service

both of whom have no meaningful life experience and are as qualified for the exacting task of captioning as I am for piloting a MiG fighter jet, whenever a captioner hits an unfamiliar word, it’s left out entirely or replaced by a phonetic transcription or an ellipsis.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Whenever you run across something that makes you think “Huh. That was weird,” your responsibility is to stop cold, save your file, and hit the big red confab button. Call everyone over and keep working on the word until you figure it out – and figure out how to render it. (One Canadiain example from last month concerned avant-garde filmmakers. Suzy Lee or Chris Matthews got hung up on Buñuel. It simply went untranscribed. Gee, if your memories reached further back than the days when Frankie Goes to Hollywood ruled the Top 40 and your reading stretched further than Tiger Beat, maybe you’d have enough general knowledge to know who the fuck Buñuel was. Of course, that might entail actual research, and doing that you might break a nail. But I digress.)

In the Caption Center system, such confabs are possible. They still flub things now and then, but the errors do not follow the pattern of the Canadian bobbysoxer girls. (In case you’re wondering, I very much know what I’m doing by stereotyping Canadian captioners as “Oriental girls” and “sweaterfags.” Not only may you quote me on that, I insist.)

Whenever the Caption Center does make a mistake, I ask myself why the “captioneer” (a cute WGBH neologism) didn’t make use of the collegial system and ask for help. I also visualize someone labouring away in a darkened room. I have a certain degree of sympathy for the effort put into it, but all that counts are results.

At any rate, I enjoyed a pleasantly bitchy conversation with Number 13, who was busy finalizing Portuguese DVD subtitles for a certain project. (God help us, they subtitle in Arial. I gamely contained my displeasure. The Caption Center does next to no DVD subtitling work, and almost no captioning of home video. Captions, Inc. and NCI own those markets.)

Did you know some of the WGBH captioneers have been at it for 16 or 17 years? Number 13 is one of them.

I got a quick look at the software. Number 2 had warned me at the outset that GBH software is “proprietary,” as though that were not self-evident and as though I had planned to pirate it. While chatting, we did kooky stuff like setting captions simultaneously at top and bottom over the Portuguese Arial. I was happy as a pig in shit. Except for the fact that the delayed reaction of my dressing-down by Number 2 was starting to hit me.

We hear the word “offended” a lot these days. It is a euphemism of sorts. I think few of us have an understanding of what the emotion of offense actually feels like. Typically, to be “offended” tends to refer to the sensation of guessing that others will find something risqué. Madonna’s “Justify My Love” (or indeed South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut or Robert Schuller with the Hour of Power) is not per se “offensive”; it merely conjures images of other people’s objections even if you don’t share them.

I began to feel actually offended, as distinct from the impression of having my honour and integrity questioned, a related but distinguishable sentiment. That was happening too, actually. I am like Loreena Bobbitt when it comes to my honour: I have a very strong (arguably hairtrigger) disloyalty detector and, like a proud Italian or a Latino, I do a Corbomite manœuvre and counter any assault on my honour at a hundred and fifty percent. I am sure this is a failing, though I am in no rush to correct it.


But let’s not dwell on the past. Recall that I was left completely alone with Number 13. It had become clear, even to Number 2, that I was harmless. But would I be permitted to meet Number 77, whom I’d exchanged mail with a few times? He’s the chief programmer and technical whiz.

(On the wall outside his office sits a large display of the sort used in Rear Window® cinema captioning, with the requisite reflective Plexiglas panel on a tall stalk nearby. I didn’t spend enough time in New York or Boston to trek out to the suburban cinemas running the MoPix system to enjoy Pearl Harbor with captions and descriptions, so as yet I have no direct experience with Rear Window, but just peering at the demo system they had installed it did seem that you could read the captions and watch the movie simultaneously.)

Number 13 checked to see if 77 was available, and by God he was. Hands were shaken. (“Are we allowed to talk?” “I dunno – I tend to talk to whoever I want.”) I met his assistant, Number 78, another of the many bright-eyed kids at work there. Number 2 suddenly reappeared, looking worried again. (About what?)

“Is there anything nonproprietary in there you could show me?” I asked. Numbers 77 and 78 share a tiny office (also dimly-lit) jam-packed with two Windows computers, a Bronze PowerBook (running X), and a twin-monitor PowerMac (I couldn’t find the actual computer itself), plus desks and chairs and photos on the walls. It is public knowledge that GBH is developing Version 2.0 of MAGpie, the online-caption-’n’-description tool, and that is one of the tasks 77 and 78 are working on. Also, the main Caption Center software has been updated to understand digital files, since Digital Is the Way of the Future.

Number 78 keeps the Caption Center technically functional, and admits to having known nothing about accessibility before taking the job. “Have you gotten religion?” I asked him stagily, and we all chuckled – even Number 2 – as Number 78 admitted he had.

At this point I had to consider schlepping to Logan Airport to bring this broadly disappointing New England tour to a close. Number 2 escorted me to the front door pleasantly enough. We shook hands and I was all smiles, carefully adopting the same jovial, face-saving, smoothing-over-hard-feelings tone of voice, facial expression, and body language you use when you mean to say “Oh, no. Not at all. Don’t be silly. Oh, please. Forget about it. It was nothing.” Except our conversation actually went like this:

– I hope I didn’t offend you before.

– Oh, you did, actually, very much so.

– I’m sure I’ll hear about it.

– You certainly will.


I wrote a letter of complaint – a hardcopy letter – to Number 1, which elicited a telephone call notable for its lack of apology. The themes of his not-unspirited defense of Number 2 were:

  • People are human. They have feelings.
  • I’m not quite “the big boss” here. I can’t control what everyone does or thinks.

Except Number 1 had billed himself as exactly that. He admitted discussing my visit with Number 2, but could not quite clarify how he had failed to explain to Number 2 that my entire visit was kosher and that I was not to be interrogated.

Number 1 was all surprised that I took this seriously and wrote so much “verbiage.” Well, kiddo, that’s what I do. You can’t wash the stripes off a zebra.