It’s time to talk about an important subject for me. Some of you may know this already, while others may have had no idea. I’m completely deaf – prelingually deaf. Irreparably. And as such, most of my reviews take on an unique perspective. For one – I cannot hear anything. Period. So basically, all movies and television shows are silent for me. (For people familiar with audiology charts, let’s just say my “hearing” begins at 120 dB, which isn’t really “hearing”, but more when you literally feel everything shaking).

So one of the most important laws enacted in the United States of America was established in July of 1993. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required that all analog televisions with screen sizes 13″ or larger manufactured or sold in the United States to contain built-in captioning circuitry to display closed captioning. Previously, television sets had no such requirements, and pretty much all of them lacked the captioning circuits.

So the first step had been made in 1993. Before 1993 – there were very few captioned shows on the airwaves if at all. And televisions didn’t have the means to display them. Deaf people had to find special machines to plug into their televisions in order to access and display the captioning information if any captioning had been encoded. Those devices were known as CCD’s (closed-captioning decoders).

Here are some photos of my old CCD:

I lugged this device across the United States for several years. And that was no guarantee that the television shows would be captioned. Even today, you can still find hotels equipped with pre-1993 televisions, and those cause no end to my frustration. The situation is a lot better in 2012 than it was in 2002 though, that’s for sure.

In 1996, Congress required all video programming distributors (cable operators, broadcasters, satellite distributors, and other multi-channel distributors) to close caption their programs. As with all laws, there are arcane requirements in order to meet or get exempt from the legalities. But in general, major channels (ABC, FOX, CBS, NBC, etc. have all captioned everything – except the news programs at times). Other laws and additions to current laws have been made over the years, but most people aren’t aware of them. For most, captions and subtitles are a luxury. It’s a necessity for me and some others.

As much as I love film, there have always been differences between captions and subtitles. They are not one and same. And even the recent advent of “SDH” (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing), which is basically a combination of captions and subtitles. It doesn’t provide as much as captioning does, but more than subtitles. Subtitles are usually used for foreign films. To illustrate the differences between all three, let’s look at three hypothetical situations from films / television shows that may or may not resemble actual films or shows. You will experience what it’s like to watch a film without being able to hear any of the sounds or sound effects:

Situation one:

(No captions/subtitles):

Man comes into the room. Picks up a violin and starts playing. String breaks. Man exits room.

(Subtitles)

“Well there goes another string.” (said as back was turned to the camera)

(SDH)

[playing violin] …. “Well there goes another string.”

(Captions)

[playing violin (musical notes) … <string snaps>] … “Well there goes another string.”

Situation two:

(No captions/subtitles):

View of castle for 30 seconds. Fade to black.

(Subtitles):

Nothing

(SDH):

Nothing

(Captions):

<Screech! Crash! Boom! sounds of tires rolling away…. *sound of Fester laughing*>

Situation three:

(No captions/subtitles):

Poorly drawn weather map with radar animation.

(Subtitles):

Nothing – this is live television weather.

(SDH):

Nothing – this is live television weather.

(Captions):

Usually nothing, but if they would caption it, it’d usually go something like this… “TORNADO TOUCHING DOWN 1 MILE FROM WHERE YOU ARE. SEEK SHELTER NOW. NOW. NOW.”. Instead, you’re left unaware.

No, I’m not being overly dramatic – all of the above are real situations and happen no matter if it is a Blu-ray, DVD, VHS, over-the-air, or via cable. Two advancements have been the worst for deaf and hard of hearing people – that of the HDMI cable (for Blu-ray) and the preponderance of videos on the Internet. I won’t even mention the futility and frustration most of us have with the entire concept of podcasts – a whole category of information and entertainment that we cannot access in any format at all.

Blu-ray is a fantastic technology. That cannot be disputed. However, the HDMI cable was not designed with captions in mind. There is no channel whatsoever for captions to be transmitted if you use a HDMI cable (which is necessary for the display of any video above 480i resolution (ie: 720i, 720p, 1080i, 1080p).

You will have to hope your Blu-ray has SDH, as those are trasmitted. If somehow your Blu-ray has actual captions on it (a very few of them actually do), you have to connect the player to the television using the component cables instead of HDMI in order for captions to be displayed. Then you can watch it again without the captions in high resolution, assuming you can remember everything that was captioned the first time around.

In general though, I’m usually okay with SDH for most movies. There’s too big of a market for SDH/subtitles (the US is the worst for some reason with releasing subtitles). Discs that are released into the EU or UK markets usually have far more subtitle options than you could ever ask for. In the US, you’re lucky to get an English subtitle track, much less a Spanish one, nevermind variants for dialects.

Further fragmenting the market is the fact that the home video market has been divided into regions (of course you can bypass it if you pay enough money and know how to bypass the technological barriers, but that’s not today’s subject). Blu-ray has three regions – releases are usually locked in that region (meaning it won’t play in the players sold in the other regions). In general, North America is region ‘A’, EU/UK is region ‘B’, and Asia is region ‘C’. Many movies in the UK are region-free, which is a priceless feature for some of us. Most American releases are ‘A’ locked, but our friends overseas will import them if they’re a big enough cinephile.

This is not meant to be a in-depth survey, but rather a topical presentation. I’ve tried to rate DVDs and Blu-rays with the quality of their captioning and subtitling in mind. A lot of discs only caption or subtitle the main feature, ignoring the special features. This is also a “tradeoff” for many companies. I’ve come to accept that just the main feature alone is fine by me in most cases. Some certain companies claim that captioning is an exorbitant fee. It’s not. The fee is much less than it is for music rights, and to be honest, if a company was truly creative, they’d find ways to get around the fees.

For example, they could hire interns to transcribe subtitles by hand. There’s a large Internet community of people doing this for free already. Just offer them some free product and a copy of the DVD at the end, and I am sure you would find people fighting over who gets to do it. I fully believe that any company that continues to put out products without captioning or subtitling is shortchanging themselves out of a huge chunk of the market. Not just hearing impaired people want subtitles!

All of the above has just been for traditional media formats. The Internet is an entirely different beast. There are no rules or regulations for the Internet as of yet. This has led to a preponderance of videos without any captions at all. A deaf engineer at Google has been working on automated computer captioning for videos (but as can be seen, the effects are hilarious at times, and not always available, and for YouTube only).

It’s worse when you consider iTunes or other related services such as Netflix. There are very few captioned offerings on either. Congress has been considering exactly how to require subtitles/captioning for videos on the Internet and it’s possible that people will bypass airing original material over the air to make it solely Internet-only and inaccessible to a great majority of people. Original Internet series such as The Guild and other shows I would be interested in watching have excluded me from being part of their audience.

I will conclude this essay slash public service announcement and mention that I will start a page (not a post) where I’ll collect and explain static images that signify captions and subtitles throughout the years. Different images and different meanings have been attributed to this unique iconography over time.

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