The caption writers: how Able brings TV closer to the hearing impaired

Our ability to consume media is dependent on our ability to see and hear. If we can’t see, then Steve Braunias’ words in the Herald evade us; if we can’t hear, then the ramblings of Paul Henry float by silently; and if we can’t do one or the other, then the messages relayed via the television lose most of their impact. For over two thousand years, humans have developed various means to bridge the gap that separates the visually or hearing impaired from media. In the first century AD, Roman emperor Nero is said to have used an emerald to watch the gladiatorial games. In 1829, Frenchman Louis Braille published the first version of his code that would give blind people the ability to read. And hearing trumpets and listening aids have also been employed to connect viewers with audio content for hundreds of years.  

One of the more recent innovations in this space was the addition of captioning to television shows in the 1970s. The first application of this process was used in 1972 during an episode of the French Chef, with the words appearing uniformly across all TV sets tuned into the show. And by 1976, the Federal Communications Commission of the United States introduced closed captioning, which gave viewers a choice of whether or not to watch a show.

Today in New Zealand, closed captioning has become a common feature on broadcast television that viewers can activate through their remote controls. The use of closed captioning on television has, however, created a demand for the words at the bottom of the page. And an organisation that serves to meet this need is Able

“Able is a new not-for-profit organisation, launched in late 2013,” says chief executive Wendy Youens. “We’re funded by NZ On Air to provide captioning and audio description on NZ television channels … [NZ On Air] contracts us to provide access services to TVNZ and Mediaworks. We work closely with the broadcasters to coordinate the delivery and broadcast of the services.” 

Able was initially based at TVNZ and was previously known as the TVNZ Access services. Following a decision by the broadcaster to cease non-core activity, Able was established as an independent organisation. 

[This] has been a really positive thing for access services in New Zealand – we’re a fully independent organisation, ready to work with any broadcaster,” says Youens.

Youes says that this approach is very different to several international markets, where legislation requires broadcasters to facilitate captioning.

“Overseas, many countries have legislation requiring broadcasters to caption and audio describe their programming. This has led to a higher level of access services, especially captioning, in Australia, the UK and the USA. There has been active lobbying for similar legislation in NZ. Regardless of legislation, I think it’s really important that broadcasters and media producers start to step up the plate to make their content accessible by adding captions for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and by adding audio description for blind and vision impaired people. It’s a win-win situation – providing accessibility is good for your brand and you’ll have more people tuning in to your content.”

The National Foundation for the Deaf says that as many as 700,000 Kiwis are deaf or hard of hearing, and a recent study conducted by Able showed that five percent of the population uses captions every day. And the extent of the problem means that government recently increased its funding to Able.

“Last year we received $2.4 million in funding from the good folk at NZ On Air,” says Youens. “In the next financial year, we’ll be receiving $2.8 million, which is a fantastic development for us at Able. We’ll be allocating the extra funds to allow us to produce more captioning for TV One, TV2, TV3 and Four, and more audio description for TV One and TV2. NZ On Air has been funding access services for many years now, and without them, we simply would not be here.”

Interestingly, this service only covers programming and does not include commercials, meaning that many of the spots that run on these channels might miss the hearing impaired audiences. 

“We also provide commercial services for advertisers – we caption television commercials for broadcast on TV One, TV2, TV3 and Four,” says Youens. “It’s a quick and easy process for a very small fee (of $200 plus GST) that makes your television commercial accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing New Zealanders.”

In addition to its TV work, Able has also developed captions for online platforms and Youens says that there’s much more opportunity in this space. 

“Online media is such a booming industry, and we often provide captions for online platforms like YouTube and Netflix. It would be great to see more NZ-based online platforms carry captions and audio description, such as TVNZ OnDemand, 3Now, Lightbox and Quickflix … We’re always hearing from viewers about which programmes and channels they’d like to see with captions or audio description, so we’re very focussed on continuing to grow the service, and we’d love to expand to more channels in the future.”

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