For the deaf, captioners are the true TV stars

For the deaf, captioners are the true TV stars
Des Moines (Iowa) Register/ANDREA MELENDEZ
New federal rules for television have increased demand for closed captioners.
Des Moines (Iowa) Register


Court TV anchors recently hosted live coverage of a Vermont murder trial, but for viewers who were deaf or hearing impaired, the real star of the show was Karla Ray.

Ray, 31, never appeared on screen and was working in a home office in her Des Moines basement, typing the closed-captioning for the live program and translating the anchors' commentary and the testimony.

Ray is part of a small, but growing, number of broadcast captioners across the nation. Many work at home, providing closed-captioning for television programs produced and transmitted live from television studios hundreds of miles away.

The words she types crawl across the screen for the hearing impaired and viewers who are helped by seeing spoken words in print.

"I love it," said Ray, a broadcast captioner since 2002.

Closed-captioning has gradually become a common part of broadcast and cable television. Legislation in the early 1990s required all TV sets to include equipment that could receive and display captioning. On Jan.1, additional rules went into effect requiring closed-captioning for most new TV programs. Future rules will require captioning for reruns and Spanish-language shows.

The rules have ratcheted up demand for captioners.

"There's definitely a shortage," said Kathy DiLorenzo, a vice president of Vitac, a Pittsburgh-based company that provides captioning services.

Captioning for prerecorded shows is done after a show is made but before it's aired. Captioners, using a video provided by the show's producers,often work in the offices of a captioning services company such as Vitac, but they can also work at home.

Captioners and court reporters — similar skills are needed for both jobs — earn an average of about $65,000 a year after a few years of experience, DiLorenzo said.

Only an estimated 400 people nationwide work as broadcast captioners, DiLorenzo and others say. An additional 1,000 to 3,000 are expected to be needed in the next few years.

Captioners and court reporters use a "stenotype machine" that looks like a small typewriter, but has only about 25 keys. Creating a single word often requires the operator to press down several keys at one time.

The writing is phonetic. The captioner types words as they sound, rather than how they're spelled. Computer software translates the phonetic writing into properly spelled words that appear on the screen.

While court reporters can clean up spelling and punctuation mistakes after the trial, broadcast captioners need to get everything right the first time because it will be seen by millions of television viewers.

Peter Wacht, a spokesman for the National Court Reporters Association, said: "Essentially, broadcast captioners are the best of the best."


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