How Captioning Works

by Darlene Parker, FAPR, RPR, CAPM,
Director of Steno Captioning and Realtime Relations at the National Captioning Institute

Captioners attend court reporting school for approximately two to three years. Some programs are four-year Bachelor Degree programs. They are trained to take down the spoken word at speeds in excess of 225 words per minute on a Stenotype machine.  The machine is not like a computer keyboard.  It has only 22 keys, which means not all 26 letters of the alphabet are represented, so combinations of keys are stroked to equal certain individual letters.  The Stenotype theory is based on phonetics and syllables.  Because of that, more than one key is usually stroked at a time.  It’s more akin to playing chords on a piano than typing individual letters on a computer keyboard.   My name on the computer keyboard would be seven distinct strokes, D-a-r-l-e-n-e.   On the Stenotype keyboard, it would be only two strokes – TKAR/HRAOEPB/.  The reason it looks so strange is because there are only 22 keys, and combinations of keys equal letters.  As the captioner listens to the broadcast, s/he inputs phonetic codes onto the Stenotype machine.  Because the broadcasts are live, there is no chance to correct errors once a certain number of strokes have been hit.   Once the captioner strokes the word or words, his/her dictionary is searched for the correct English match.  That caption data then travels via modem or an IP connection to the encoder at the broadcast origination site and is merged with the video signal.

Below is an image of a Stenotype machine.  As you can see, there are no letters printed on the keys, as there are with the computer keyboard.

As you can imagine, since it is a very difficult skill to learn and master, especially at high speeds, captioners comprise a very small and elite group.  One in 15 who starts court reporting school graduates.   Then approximately only one in seven court reporters who apply to a company to become a captioner possesses the requisite skills to be accepted.   Many  are experienced court reporters.  A few are outstanding recent graduates.  Once hired, captioners undergo three to four months of intensive training before they are allowed to caption on the air.  The length of training depends on the ability of the captioner.  Training continues for another 18 months to two years to ensure that captioners are knowledgeable of all sports and can caption all sports, including fast-paced sporting events and sports talk shows.

Errors can occur for many reasons – difficult terminology, including strange proper names, the quick pace of some programs, difficulty understanding audio in general or understanding some speakers in particular, and speakers talking over each other.  At high rates of speed, the captioner may simply make a mistake and hit an extra key or omit a key.  How many people can write emails all day long and never make a typo?  Also, two strokes can stack and be read as one, and transmission errors can cause strange-looking errors.  Transmission errors occur when there is any disruption on the line carrying the caption data and can appear as two characters dropping out, garbling, white boxes, captions moving around the screen, or changing colors.    Captioners cannot cause these errors.  Sometimes disconnecting and reconnecting clears up the problem.  Captions may also be adversely affected as they are passed along by cable or small dish distributors, or if a viewer receives their signal by antenna.

Please be assured that captioners are dedicated professionals whose goal is to provide our deaf and hard-of-hearing audience with the best captions humanly possible.

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