click here to skip directly to page content
Media Access Group  Versión en español
About Us Services and Products Research and Development Resources Get Involved

A wealth of information for producers, broadcasters, distributors, exhibitors, consumers, parents, and educators.

Caption Center News

Caption Center News: September 1999

Issue Fifty-One
The ABCs of DTV Captioning
All across the country, new digital television (DTV) stations are taking over the airwaves with the promise of crystal-clear widescreen pictures, multichannel sound and bold new services for entertainment and education. But even if you're one of the lucky few with a DTV set, you receive little or no captioned or described programming.

WGBH and its Access Division-- The Caption Center, Descriptive Video Service®® and the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM)-- is working to change that. NCAM won funding from the U.S. Department of Education in 1998 to create the DTV Access Project, a research effort encouraging the development of closed captioning and video description services (for blind users) for professional and consumer DTV.

"DTV doesn't work like the current broadcast signal. It requires a whole new delivery system for these important services," according to project manager Gerry Field. "When the first stations went on the air, none provided captions or description, and most of the consumer sets couldn't decode them anyway. It's such a new area, some of the technology hadn't been invented yet."

Project Milestones and Plans
November '98: Project brings together DTV technology leaders Lucent Digital Video and Ultech Corporation to provide the first captioned local DTV signal, at commercial station WCVB in Boston. (The Caption Center captions WCVB's news and public affairs programming.)

February '99: WGBH hosts an industry-wide summit to draft an open technical standard now being adopted by SMPTE, the national television engineering organization.

April '99: Project provides the first video description on a PBS national DTV broadcast and demonstrates both DTV access technologies at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Summer '99: Project staff continues to work with a variety of industry, government and consumer groups, makes a presentation to the Federal Communications Commission, and provides technical briefings to engineers at the nation's model DTV station in Washington, D.C.

Fall '99 and beyond: Project staff conducts product evaluations with manufacturers and issues the first in a series of test CD-ROMs. NCAM is awarded funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Television Future Fund to provide access technology support to PBS stations during their transition to DTV. Meanwhile, The Caption Center joins other efforts under way at WGBH to explore a myriad of new opportunities to deliver additional educational and access features in DTV, such as the Enhanced Arthur prototype described below.

Arthur Leads the Way
Storyteller Adrian Blue presents Arthur in American Sign Language
Storyteller Adrian Blue presents Arthur in American Sign Language
With funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, WGBH's Interactive Department has created a functional prototype of the popular children's program Arthur as it might be broadcast via DTV.

DTV technology can reinforce the educational objectives of a TV program, combining traditional program video with both synchronized (time of viewing) and post-broadcast data.

WGBH's Access Division joined the Interactive team to create enhancements for deaf and hard-of-hearing children that support literacy development, and conducted focus groups with teachers of deaf and hard-of-hearing students to test a variety of features including:

  • a sign language introduction to the Arthur story that identifies characters and sets up the story;
  • the Arthur story in American Sign Language (ASL);
  • two caption text tracks-- one verbatim and one modified for timing and vocabulary to serve beginning readers;
  • a glossary with words and definitions in print, ASL and audio.
Contact The Caption Center to learn more.

From the Co-Directors
For many years, The Caption Center has engaged those we serve, including caption viewers and television industry contacts, in our efforts to further the amount, the reach and the caliber of our captioning efforts. Recently, we invited two of our advisory boards to our Boston office to spend time discussing new access initiatives, and to get feedback on our work and the state of the captioning industry today.

The history of The Caption Center's Consumer Council stretches back quite a number of years. Comprised of deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers and educational and organizational leaders, this group provides The Caption Center with valuable feedback as well as additional input directly from the community. During this annual meeting, we discuss various style and quality issues. We also load council members up with information about newly captioned programs and developing access services, which they in turn bring to their colleagues, students and friends back home.

The Caption Center formed a Children's Captioning Council under the auspices of our Department of Education grant to caption children's programming. We wanted to obtain input from our project partners, including broadcast and cable networks, program producers, educators, children's TV advocates and others, on the viability and usefulness of captions as a literacy tool for new readers. Among the topics discussed was the creation of a second stream of modified or Beginning Reader captions, which could be broadcast simultaneously with traditional or verbatim captions. Beginning Reader captions could benefit deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing children just learning to read, and could be broadcast during a program as Spanish captions are now (on 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II). And with the advent of digital television, additional languages may only be a click of the remote away.

Both groups learned about other new services offered now or being developed here at WGBH, and which are described in more detail in this issue of Caption Center News: Rear Window® Captioning and DVS® Theatrical® for movie theaters, Enhanced Arthur and methods of making Web sites and multimedia more accessible.

Other news to report includes renewals of our Department of Education grants to caption national news and public information, syndicated (or classic) series and children's programming. These grants, awarded every three years, along with funding from networks, program producers and corporations, allow Caption Center staff to make a huge variety of programming accessible to the nation's 24 million deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. We're also currently administering two Educational Programming grants, which you can read about on page 3, as well as a grant to caption daytime programming on public television and a wide variety of cable networks.

The Caption Center's Web site includes a list of newly captioned programs, which will be updated regularly. Contact information, including new phone and fax numbers for our Boston office, can be found on the back page. Great strides are being made in the world of access; we encourage you to visit our Web site to track them, and to provide us with your feedback, suggestions and ideas.

Tom Apone                            Lori Kay

VH1: Music Education
Behind the Music, VH1's evolving television archive of musical artists who have shaped popular culture over the last five decades, is now airing with closed captions.

Behind the Music is VH1's signature program, and is the network's first captioned series. Caption funding is provided by VH1 and the U.S. Department of Education's Daytime Programming grant.

Music videos airing on VH1 and other music networks have been captioned for years, so VH1 has a built-in audience of deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers who appreciate great music.

Each program provides insight into the offstage lives and creative influences of immensely popular performers such as Sting, REM, Madonna, Stevie Nicks, Shania Twain and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fifty new Behind the Music programs debut each year.

A&E's Biography® Now Captioned
Biography has been called one of cable's true landmarks, bringing viewers a variety of profiles of important and interesting people, represented with depth, detail and historical accuracy.

Biography is the longest-running single-topic documentary series on television and now includes 130 new profiles each year. In addition to captioning all new profiles, The Caption Center is working with A&E to caption the extensive library of Biography programs.

In addition to Biography, The Caption Center captions a number of other programs for A&E. Both Biography and Investigative Reports are captioned with funding from A&E and the U.S. Department of Education.

All in the Family
Finally Reaches Every Living Room
Carroll O'Connor and Jeanne Stapleton from Archie Miller
 Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton
After years of requests from caption viewers and ongoing negotiation with the program's rights holder, All in the Family is accessible for the first time on cable network Nick at Nite's TV Land. The Caption Center captioned this landmark series with funds from TV Land and the U.S. Department of Education.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers can now fully enjoy this groundbreaking series, which blended comedy and drama to look unflinchingly at racial, religious and ethnic prejudice, women's liberation, disease and death through the eyes of arch-conservative Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), his "Dingbat" wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), liberal daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), son-in-law Michael (Rob Reiner, also known not so fondly as "Meathead") and a cast of assorted memorable characters.

The debut of captioned episodes of All in the Family coincided with the series' recent induction into the National Association of Broadcasting's Hall of Fame.

The Caption Center also captioned these other classic series (caption funders are listed in bold): Medical Center, airing on PAX Net (U.S. Department of Education), Scarecrow and Mrs. King, which will debut on PAX Net in January (Warner Bros.), One Step Beyond and The Invaders, airing in general syndication (Worldvision Enterprises, Inc., and the U.S. Department of Education).

Interactive Links Point Viewers to Wealth of Web
As video and audio are increasingly delivered to our PCs via the Internet, "convergence" is the buzzword describing a future when the line between our computers and televisions blurs and disappears. For a growing number of people, the future is as close as their living room. Microsoft's WebTV enables viewers to watch television and surf program-related Web sites on their TV.

Interactive TV Links are site addresses embedded in line 21 of the video signal (where closed-caption data resides). Viewers with WebTV boxes attached to their TVs are alerted to additional program-related information by a small icon on the screen. They can visit the Web site as the program plays on a portion of the screen, or store the links and visit the sites later.

The Caption Center regularly inserts links in PBS's NOVA and Frontline, and first developed the capability to embed links "on the fly" during live broadcasts. We also insert links into music video clips distributed by Warner Bros. and Reprise Records, which air on MTV, VH1 and other networks. These links take the viewer to the record label's home page or another artist-related site.

David May, a Grammy-winning producer and director of audio/video & DVD production for Warner Bros., believes these links are an ideal means of extending an artist's appeal. "Since we first began working with The Caption Center in 1989, Warner Bros. music and video divisions have made reaching the entire audience a high priority. Interactive Links serve hearing and deaf fans by providing background on artists, information on current and past releases, and offer a multilayered experience which enriches each video clip." All Warner Bros. longform music videos released on DVD, home video or laser disc are closed captioned-- and in many cases subtitled as well-- by The Caption Center.

Blue's Clues, Little Bear
Among Captioned Educational Programs
Blue and Steve from Blue's Clues
Blue and pal Steve
Two U.S. Department of Education grants awarded to The Caption Center enable captioning of a wide variety of educational programs shown in classrooms nationwide. Over the years, The Caption Center has received countless letters, calls and e-mails from parents, teachers and school administrators frustrated by the lack of captioned programs available on such services as Cable in the Classroom and PBS's in-school learning service.

While preparing our proposal for these grants, The Caption Center surveyed teachers in residential schools for deaf students and teachers with deaf or hard-of-hearing students in mainstream classrooms. The resulting list of priorities included the most popular programs used by teachers and students today.

Among the Cable in the Classroom programs airing with captions are the phenomenally popular Blue's Clues and Little Bear (which, in addition to airing on Cable in the Classroom, also air captioned on Nickelodeon), Animal Planet's Acorn the Nature Nut, ESPN's SportsFigures, the Weather Channel's Weather Classroom and Ovation's ArtsZone.

Instructional programs on science, language arts, mathematics, geography and history will debut with captions this fall and winter on the PBS in-school learning service. Watch The Caption Center's Web site for a growing list of captioned educational programs.

Multimedia Captioning 101
Brad Botkin of the Media Access Group
Brad Botkin heads up software development, systems integration, new systems initiatives and strategy for the Media Access Division at WGBH.
WGBH's Access Division, which includes The Caption Center, is at the forefront of the effort to ensure that video- and audio-based media delivered via the World Wide Web is as accessible as possible.

The Caption Center provides multimedia captions for clients ranging from Microsoft and Warner Bros. to educational and cultural institutions, such as the University of Kentucky's new state-of-the-art Basketball Museum and the Brooklyn Children's Museum.

There are currently three ways to provide captions for multimedia productions. In each case, specially formatted text files are created that can be read by a computer's multimedia playback engine (referred to below simply as the player). Brad Botkin, director of systems development for WGBH's Media Access Division, outlines the three methods here.

Apple's QuickTime software makes it easy to add captions to Web-based movies and video clips. A text file is created in Apple's QTtext format, and this text file is then used to create a text track. The text track and the movie's video and audio track are combined in advance, so the captions can appear anywhere in the QuickTime player, either superimposed over the video (like subtitles) or in a separate area below the video. QuickTime users watching a clip via QuickTime can turn this text track on or off. By creating several text tracks, multimedia producers can provide users with the option to choose among several different languages.

The Caption Center worked with Microsoft to develop the Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange, or SAMI, format. SAMI was first used as a means of making hundreds of video clips on Microsoft's bestselling Encarta CD- ROM encyclopedia accessible. For each video clip, a corresponding SAMI text file is created. As the movie or clip plays, the computer is signaled to look for this matching text file, which is displayed just underneath the video, usually in a black box. SAMI uses HTML-like coding (Hypertext Markup Language, the language used to create Web sites). SAMI also allows for the creation of multiple language tracks, which can be displayed using a Windows Media Player.

Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language, or SMIL (pronounced "smile"), resembles SAMI in that separate text, sound and video elements are combined each time the user plays a video. It is based on an easy-to-learn HTML-like coding language called XML. SMIL text files can be read by a limited number of players, including the RealNetworks G2. SMIL was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. WGBH's Access Division is creating an editing tool, called Media Access Generator (MAGpie), that will allow a single source file to be used by either QuickTime-, SAMI- or SMIL-compatible players--
one-stop shopping that will enable Web site developers to make video and audio clips accessible to everyone.

For more information contact The Caption Center, and visit WGBH's Web Access site, which includes links to Apple, Microsoft and the W3C, at

The Caption Center is the world's first captioning agency and a nonprofit service of the WGBH Educational Foundation.

Caption Services Description Services NCAM