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TV stations seek better captioning

The News-Press
November 25, 2004

Hearing impaired residents complain

By Chris Wadsworth

Local television stations are scrambling to find solutions after a deaf Southwest Florida man and two area agencies that serve the hearing-impaired community filed federal complaints against them. Their concern: the lack of closed captioning during Hurricane Charley and the other severe weather this summer.

"I didn't know Hurricane Charley had changed direction. It was supposed to go to Tampa, but it changed direction to Punta Gorda," said Richard Schuler, 44. He and his wife, both deaf, rode out the storm in their Pine Island home before heading out into flooded streets to try and get to a shelter. "We were very scared. We couldn't understand the local TV news and we didn't see any closed captioning. We didn't know what was going on."

Schuler was so upset, he sent a formal complaint to the Federal Communications Commission against WINK-TV, NBC2, ABC7 and Fox4. So did officials at Hearing Impaired Persons Inc. of Charlotte County. The Deaf Service Center of Southwest Florida Inc. sent one in just about WINK.

These agencies represent an estimated 76,000 people in Southwest Florida who are hearing impaired. These numbers could even be higher because of the large number of seniors who often experience hearing loss as they age.

"We literally had deaf people seeing the picture of Charley coming up Charlotte Harbor and getting in their cars and trying to drive up 75 to evacuate," said Kim Gaut, an education coordinator with HIP. "They had no clue how fast the hurricane was moving. They were receiving no information about what was being said."

The problem comes with the closed captioning that many hearing-impaired and deaf viewers depend on to

understand what is being said on television. Closed captioning is when a printed version of what is being said appears at the bottom of the television screen. While most network and cable programming has closed captioning, many locally produced shows do not.

In the case of local news, the closed captioning comes from the scripts the anchors read. However, in the case of weather and breaking news, scripts aren't used.

"The reporters in the field don't have scripts. The anchors will occasionally have scripts (for breaking news) but when it starts into a Q-and-A situation, then there are no scripts," said John Emmert, the news director at WINK-TV, the local CBS affiliate. "(Weathercasters) never use scripts. Everything they do is ad-libbed off the cuff."

The solution demanded by many in the area deaf community is something called "real-time" closed captioning. This is a service where someone somewhere sits and listens to the station's newscast over the phone. They then type in everything that is said, from beginning to end and it appears verbatim on a viewer's TV screen.

"Here in Florida, it is very different from what I am used to," said Veronique Cheney, a deaf woman who recently moved to Fort Myers from New York where closed captioning is common. "I have to rely on my husband to tell me what is going on. When he is not around ... I look at the pictures on TV and I have to make some guesses."

While a big benefit to the hearing-impaired community, real-time closed captioning is also expensive. Cost estimates start at $100 per hour and more. Multiply that times all the newscasts each week and the service could cost stations tens of thousands of dollars each year.

WINK managers, who met with members of the deaf community after this summer's storms, found a novel way around the cost problem. They contracted with a real-time closed captioning service and then got a Department of Education grant to cover the expense for the next three years.

"We were pretty aggressive after the storms to get it resolved," Emmert said. "It's only fair to try and reach those people and give them the information they need."

Waterman Broadcasting, which operates NBC2 and ABC7, defends the job they did during Charley and the subsequent storms. The newsroom created a full-time producer position whose primary job was to keep updated information in the "crawl," a scrolling line of information that appeared at the bottom of viewers' TV screens. Since that time, they also held a meeting for area hearing impaired and are in negotiations with several closed captioning companies, but no agreement has been inked yet.

"Every viewer is important to us and we want to stay on good terms with everybody, so we're bending over backwards to figure out how to do it," said Steve Pontius, Waterman's general manager.

These sentiments are echoed by Fox4 General Manager Donita Todd, who says the station's parent company is looking into options for real-time closed captioning in all 15 television markets they serve.

"It's a very high priority," Todd said. "You never know what the next emergency situation might be. We need to address it as quickly as possible."

While the local stations did have limited information available in closed captioning or in the crawl, local deaf advocates contend it was not enough.

"When the hurricane changed course ... they were telling us it was too late to go anywhere, to hunker down," Gaut recalled. "(Meanwhile), the crawl was saying ... school closings, shelters and phone numbers. The crawl was not matching what was being said by the news people."

Under FCC rules, stations must make whatever information is being said on television available to the hearing impaired during emergencies. Currently, a "best effort" is expected of stations, but by 2006, local managers say all stations in the top 100 markets will need to offer real-time captioning. The Naples-Fort Myers market is No. 70.

At this time, the local complaints as well as responses from the area stations have been passed on to the FCC's Enforcement Bureau.

Officials with the Deaf Service Center and HIP are waiting to hear from the FCC before they decide what to do next. They point out that brush fire season is coming and deaf and hearing-impaired viewers will again be at a disadvantage.

"I would recommend that anyone turn off the sound (on a TV newscast) and see what they can get," said Dawn Raymond, the executive director of the Deaf Service Center. "Most people would find that unsettling with just the normal everyday news. When your life could be in danger, you want to have that information."

Copyright 2004, The News-Press.



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