By SHABINA S. KHATRI
STAFF REPORTER OF THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 17, 2005
After more than three decades, captioning is starting to take tentative steps beyond the television screen.
Since it was introduced on Julia Child’s cooking show in 1971, captioning has spread to every corner of the TV world. Not only are virtually all shows coded for the hearing impaired, but captioning has become a fixture among mainstream viewers as well: Places like health clubs, restaurants and airports regularly use captioning to bring customers unobtrusive TV service.
But for all of its inroads into television, captioning never caught on in other venues where it could help the deaf, such as movie theaters and airlines.
Now that’s beginning to change. Under legal pressure, some big theater chains are adopting a technology that lets the hearing-impaired see captions without actually putting them up on the screen. A number of airlines are considering adding captioned films to the seat-back televisions on their planes. And an advocacy group for the hearing impaired is pushing to introduce captioning to cellphones, PDAs and other gadgets.
All of these efforts are in different stages of development, and face big challenges. But if they’re successful they could begin to transform entertainment and communications for the nation’s 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Here’s a look at the progress in these three venues.
Since captioning broke onto television screens, many in the deaf community have been pushing for equal access in theaters. But movie captioning has faced one big problem: You can’t turn it off.
Television broadcasters use “closed” captioning, which hides the text in the video signal, so viewers can choose whether to have words on the screen. But you can’t hide captions on a reel of film. Movies must use “open” captioning, where the text is burned onto the film like subtitles. And that can get distracting for viewers who aren’t hearing impaired.
Theaters that want to cater to the deaf have to obtain two copies of the film, one with captions and one without, and schedule special screenings. And some theater owners argue there simply isn’t a big enough audience to make such showings viable, especially since the company that captions movies takes a cut of ticket sales.
The key to solving the problem, says Larry Goldberg, director of Media Access Group in Boston, was finding a way to hide captions “so only the people that wanted to see them could see them.”
So his group, a nonprofit that helps give people with disabilities access to media, developed “rear window” technology, which displays captions at the back of the theater on a light-emitting diode (LED) screen. Viewers who want to see captions ask the theater for a free “reader”: a clear plastic panel that mounts on the seat-side cup holder and reflects the words from the display. If you watch the movie through the plastic panel, the words appear superimposed on the movie screen.
The technology, which costs about $10,000, was largely ignored when it was introduced in 1997 — but then came the lawsuits. Four years ago, AMC Entertainment Inc., Kansas City, Mo., and New York-based Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. were sued by activists in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The class-action suit alleged that the chains had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by not making films accessible to the deaf and hearing impaired in the Washington, D.C., area.
In May, the companies settled the lawsuit by agreeing to install rear-window technology on 11 existing screens and in any new theaters built in the area. Then, in September, the two chains, along with Clearview Cinema Group Inc., Chatham, N.J., and National Amusements Inc., Dedham, Mass., made a similar agreement in settling a complaint filed by the New Jersey attorney general’s office.
The settlement increased the number of theaters in New Jersey with rear-window technology to 39 from three. Overall, 88 theaters in North America have adopted the system. The Coalition for Movie Captioning, a Fairfax, Va., nonprofit that works to get hearing-impaired people better access to theaters, pushed for legislation earlier this year to give theaters a tax credit for captioning equipment. The bill failed, but the group is looking for other legislative solutions, as well as lobbying to ensure that next-generation digital movies include captioning capabilities.
Some theater owners are strongly opposed to rear-window systems. Regal Entertainment Group, Knoxville, Tenn., the nation’s largest theater chain, refused to settle in the New Jersey case, saying that hearing-impaired viewers prefer open-captioned movies, which Regal already offers, to the rear-window technology.
“This is a very complicated issue, much more so than people think,” says Randy Smith, senior vice president of Regal’s human-resources counsel. Mr. Smith, who has a 14-year-old daughter who is deaf, says the problem with rear-window technology is “the deaf don’t like it.”
Other sources back up that argument. In a recent survey, 95% of about 100 people said that they preferred open-captioned movies to rear-window technology, according to USA-L News/Creative Designers, which provides current-events information to the deaf community.
Kevin McCaul, a digital-graphics designer who is deaf, agrees that the technology has its problems. When moviegoers sit in the back of the theater, they have trouble switching their focus from the up-close captions to the screen images that are farther away, the Connecticut resident explains in an e-mail interview.
Media Access Group agrees that its product isn’t perfect, but argues that it’s the most practical system around.
Like movie theaters, airlines have been reluctant to risk alienating hearing passengers by captioning in-flight entertainment. The closest any airline comes to offering captioned entertainment is Virgin Atlantic Airways, which provides hearing-impaired customers with open-captioned movies on portable DVD players. The company, which is owned by Virgin Group Ltd. and Singapore Airlines, has been offering the service free since 1999.
Now the campaign to caption in-flight entertainment may be taking a step forward, as the flailing airline industry offers more perks to woo customers. One popular extra is a seat-back television. The movies for these viewers are kept on a computer server with a tremendous amount of storage space — enough space to store captioned versions as well, say advocates for the deaf.
No airline currently provides the service, but several big U.S. and Asian carriers are interested in carrying captions, says Jim Skvarla, product-marketing manager for Matsushita Avionics Systems Corp., of Bothell, Wash., which provides the industry with the majority of its personal in-flight entertainment systems. Mr. Skvarla declined to comment on which airlines are considering the service.
Mr. Goldberg says his group is preparing the technology so that airlines will be able to introduce it when they’re ready. But he says that airlines likely won’t roll out the service unless the hearing-impaired community steps up its demands.
Further into the future lies the possibility of closed-captioned videos on cellphones and PDAs. Already, many in the deaf and hearing-impaired community have embraced the text-messaging capabilities on cellphones, which provide them a new and easier way to keep in touch. Nearly all wireless carriers also offer cellphones that are compatible with teletypewriter technology; this system, introduced in the late 1960s, allows hearing-impaired callers to communicate by sending typed messages over phone lines.
But as cellphone offerings expand to include video, advocates predict that captioning will also become necessary for those services — and not just for the hard of hearing. Without a headset or a speaker phone, for example, it’s hard to watch and listen to cellphone video at the same time.
Mr. Goldberg expects demand from consumers and regulators to bring captioning to hand-held products in five years or less. His group has developed a technique to caption cellphone video offerings such as newscasts, and a prototype is making the rounds at conferences. But the technology is still in the development stage, while cellular networks will need extra bandwidth to handle both video feeds and captions.
At least one company, Time Warner Inc.’s AOL unit, has expressed interest in providing captions with content aimed at cellphone users. AOL currently captions a few of its online CNN QuickCasts, three-minute streaming videos on its Web site with the day’s top headlines and news stories. AOL is considering bringing these newscasts to cellphones and hand-held devices. Once that happens, captions won’t be far behind, says Tom Wlodkowski, AOL’s Director of Accessibility.
Ms. Khatri is assistant editor of The Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition in Detroit.