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Why Captions Look the Way They Do
Oregon's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (ODHHS)-Technical Assistance Center
ODHHS Information and Technical Assistance Series

Why Captions Look the Way They Do
(Source: Gary Robson, Cheetah Systems)
Why do captions look different on different TV stations?
Although there are standards for how captions work, there are no standards for how they look. Different captioning companies have adopted different standards for the "look and feel" of their captions, and these conventions lead to different looks for different stations, or even different shows on the same station.
The limitations of the decoder technology impose a basic uniformity (e.g. roll-up captions all roll the same way), but there is a lot of room for stylistic interpretation. One caption house might render a sound effect (like "applause") on a line by itself, italicized and enclosed in square brackets. Another might pop it up underlined on the top of the screen. Yet a third might include it in the stream of text in lowercase and enclosed in parentheses.
There can also be dramatic differences based on where the captions come from. One news broadcast, for example, might use realtime captioners, where another one takes text from their prompter system. Since the prompter text is written for the news anchors to read, it often contains strange-looking things like camera cues. Additionally, stations that caption using prompter text usually have no captions at all during live remotes, interviews, and other segments of the show.
What do the >> and >>> symbols mean?
There are a few conventions that have become universal, or close to it, and this is one of them. When a line begins with >>, it means that somebody new is speaking. When a line in a news broadcast begins with >>>, it means that a new story is beginning, although this symbol is being phased out in some areas.
Why is captioning almost always in uppercase (capitals)?
Numerous studies have shown that mixed-case text is easier to read than all uppercase. Virtually all captioning in North America is done in uppercase only, however, because the resolution of the caption decoders caused some pretty ugly lowercase letters. For example, there are no descenders available for the lowercase i, j, g, q, and y. This means that these letters are pushed up on the line relative to the other letters, making it harder to read.
Some of the newer televisions, however, have very attractive lowercase letters with true descenders, but this can't be assumed as a standard.
Mixed-case text is often used to indicate whispering, and is also often used for text that needs to be set apart, such as comments by an off-screen announcer (voice-over), or sound effects.
Caption decoders and televisions are not required by law to support lowercase letters at all (this will change in 1996). There are, therefore, some televisions that will change mixed-case text to all uppercase.
Are there different fonts available?
In closed-captioning, the characters are generated by the decoder or television set, so the captioner has little control over what they look like. There are some decoders coming on the market now with "prettier" characters, and this will hopefully become a trend.
The new EIA-708 standard for DTV captioning allows for up to eight different fonts, each of which can be displayed in three different sizes. Of course, you'll have to get one of the new digital TVs and watch DTV programming to get this capability.
There are also some devices that provide "enlarged" captions. These are a nightmare to captioners. Captioners work long hours to make sure that their captions don't cover anything critical on the videotape, only to have one of these devices enlarge the captions, and possibly drop parts of them. Additionally, the FCC declared a "safe area" on the screen, where all captions must appear. At least one of these caption enlarging decoders allows the captions to go outside the safe area, which will actually take them off the edge of the screen on some televisions.
The most widespread example of this is the Zenith televisions with built-in captions that were sold prior to July of 1993 (when the standards in the Television Decoder Circuitry Act took effect in the U.S.). These sets enlarged the letters so that they couldn't deal with four-line captions. Additionally, underlined characters were displayed as black on a yellow background (as opposed to white on a black background for everything else).
No matter what the characters actually look like, they are still limited to a fixed character set, defined by the FCC in 1991 (again, this will be quite different when DTV comes out and the enhanced character sets are implemented).

Do captions always need to be white letters in black boxes?
Closed captions, of course, are limited by the capabilities of the decoder or television that is displaying them. There is nothing that you can do to change that. Virtually all of the built-in decoders included in the television support color, and none of the external decoder boxes do. The captioner controls the color of the captions, not the consumer. If the captioner sets up all captions in the show to be blue, there's nothing you can do at home to change that.
The new EIA-708 standard for DTV captioning allows for up to 64 different colors of text on up to 64 different colored backgrounds. The background can be made translucent (see-through) or even omitted entirely with text displayed as edged or dropshadowed characters. Of course, you'll have to get one of the new digital TVs and watch DTV programming to get this capability.
This is only true of North America's Line 21 captioning. The Teletext system used in Europe has extensive color capability.
Open captions or subtitles, also, are under your complete control, and there are a number of devices that you can use to change the look of the captions, ranging from options available on the decoders to character generators such as the Chyron CODI.

Do all TVs support color captions?
The FCC strongly encourages, but does not require, manufacturers to include color capability in their televisions. Most television manufacturers are including the capability now, and this trend is expected to continue.
According to the new EIA-708 standard for DTV (digital) captioning, TVs will have to support a minimum of 8 colors, and the standard specifies 64. Of course, you'll have to get one of the new digital TVs and watch DTV programming to get this capability.

Why do the captions not always match the audio?
There are several possible reasons for captions that don't match the audio portion of a program:
Intentional editing: Children's programs such as "Sesame Street" or "Barney" target audiences that don't have well-developed reading skills. The captions are edited down to a reading level that these audiences should be able to follow (usually about 60 words per minute). There are captioning companies that edit other programs for reading speed, which has sparked many interesting debates.
Non-verbatim caption sources: Pre-scripted captions are the best example of this. Many reporters and public speakers will deviate from their notes or scripts as they go, and if there isn't a realtime captioner, the captions won't match what is being said.
Changes to the program: When operating under a tight schedule, a program may go to the captioner on videotape before all of the final editing is complete. The dialog may be changed and re-dubbed after the captioning is done. This can lead to captions for dialog that doesn't match, or even doesn't exist in the final tape.
Swear words lead to other inconsistencies. It is the stated opinion of most, if not all, captioning firms that if it's in the audio it should be in the captions. There are times, however, when an audio track is changed at the last minute (after the captions are complete) to "bleep" a word, leaving it in the captions, or when a previously "bleeped" word is put back in.
For a lengthier discussion of this subject, see my Newswaves column from April 1998, entitled From the Mailbag. The last half of the column is a discussion of obscenities in captioning.
Update: This year (1998), a Canadian company introduced a set-top box that filters out obscene words from the captions, and can optionally remove the audio as well. I haven't yet had an opportunity to see this unit in action.

Why are there sometimes strange typos in the captions?
Like anything done by a human being, realtime captioning often produces the equivalent of "typos." Unlike normal typing, however, stenocaptioners can write entire words or phrases with a single hand motion (known as a "stroke"). A "misstroke," therefore, won't be an incorrect or missing letter, but can be entirely different words or phrases. See "Online (live) captioning" for a more detailed description of how realtime captioning works.
A good realtime captioner can work to an accuracy level of better than 99%, but that does still lead to a couple of misstrokes per minute.
When you see dropped letters (especially if those letters are dropped in pairs), that usually indicates transmission problems or bad television reception rather than errors on the part of the captioner. The most common reception problem is dropping of a frame of video, which takes out the two characters contained in that frame, so missing letters usually come in pairs.
For a more detailed description, see these great articles:
Murphy Was a Captioner, by Kevin Daniel
Weer Not Bad Spelerz, by Patty White
What are those funny white squares I sometimes see?
When there are problems with reception, the caption decoder may not be able to retrieve the captions correctly from the VBI of the television picture. That can cause garbled or dropped letters. If the decoder receives something that it interprets as invalid, it will often display it as a solid white square ("blob").
There is a "backspace" command on newer decoders that displays on some older decoders as a white square as well.

What do I do if my captions are garbled?
Sometimes the television reception is good enough to watch, but not good enough to receive captions. Other problems can interfere as well. For help with diagnosing caption problems, see my February 1998 column from Newswaves, entitled "Troubleshooting Captions."

Why do I sometimes see black text on a yellow background?
The first company to build caption decoder chips into their televisions was Zenith. They began doing this voluntarily, before the Television Decoder Circuitry Act took effect, and before the standards were locked in. The standard calls for italic text as one of the display options. Zenith felt that italics were expensive to implement, so they took a different route. Any time the captioning on the program is supposed to display in italic, these Zenith televisions will display the captions as black text on a yellow background rather than the normal white on black.
The current FCC standards require that italicized text be shown either as true italics or as slanted text.
Why do I sometimes get odd trademark symbols?
When the FCC set new standards for decoders in television sets (July of 1993), the decision was made to abandon two little-used characters in the decoder, the 1/4 (one-fourth) symbol and the 3/4 (three-fourths) symbol, and replace them with trademark and registered trademark symbols. This means that if you have a new decoder, and you watch an old captioned show that has a 1/4 symbol in it, you'll see that 1/4 symbol on your new TV as a registered trademark symbol. Many captioners avoid the trademark and fraction symbols entirely just because of this problem.
For more detail, see the full Line 21 character set.
What caption styles are available?
There are three ways that captions can be presented to a viewer:
  1. Roll-up captions are used almost exclusively for live events. The words appear one at a time at the end of the line, and when a line is filled, it rolls up to make room for a new line. Older decoders can only display roll-up captions at the bottom of the screen. Newer ones can place captions wherever the captioner wants them.
  2. Pop-on captions are the standard for pre-taped material. The entire caption appears, all at once, on the screen. When a pop-on caption appears, all captions previously on the screen are erased.
  3. Paint-on captions are a relatively new style. They are free-form in their positioning, like pop-on captions, but they don't erase what was already on the screen. The name comes from the way they are drawn on the screen a letter at a time, so you can see them "paint on" to the screen. They are not used much yet, except for commercials and special effects.

Can the viewer choose the style?
No. Caption styles are chosen by the captioner.
What character formatting attributes are available?
With the latest decoders, caption text can be displayed as white or colored characters on a black background. They can be normal text, italicized, underlined, flashing, or any combination of those attributes.
There are some decoders available now that allow the viewer to choose whether the captions should appear on a black background, or as "edged characters" (colored text with black edges).