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Captioning Community

Weighing Your Captioning Options, Part One

By Kevin W. Daniel

Reporters become captioners for lots of reasons. Some see it as their calling from the moment they learn about captioning. Some come to it as a career change - as an escape from the legal world, in response to altruistic urges or as the next great challenge in life. Some even have it thrust upon them, spurred into captioning by an employer or client. Whatever draws you to captioning, once the decision to caption is made, you then face at least one more choice - within what type of structure will you caption? While there are many possible business structures, I will explore three of the most common:

  • Starting your own captioning business;
  • Working from your home as an independent contractor for one or more established captioning companies; and
  • Working in-house for an established captioning company.

This article will discuss the first option, with the article following next month discussing the second and third options.

One Caveat

If you're convinced you want to caption, please research the field and spend time changing your writing. With the exception of the scenario of working in-house for a captioning company, I'm assuming that you've written realtime for at least six months and you've attended seminars and read books about closed captioning. If you plan to start your own company, you'll need a great deal more experience and knowledge. Don't assume the transition from reporting to captioning is a natural one. Here's a simple example: In the legal field, verbatim is everything; in captioning, readability is the first priority. Having said that, this article contains options for everyone, from the beginning reporter to the seasoned veteran.

Pride of Ownership

You may consider that the time is ripe for you to exercise your entrepreneurial spirit and start a captioning business. It won't necessarily require you to relocate, and it could be the most rewarding - and most demanding - of all your options. I'll start by exploring some of the ramifications of starting your own business.

To many people, the American Dream is owning your own company - being the boss, answering to no one. The truth is, when you own a company, you still answer to a higher authority - your customers. Without customers, you only have a business on paper. The customer becomes your boss, because the customer dictates the terms under which he or she will do business with you. So if your dream is to get away from "the boss," maybe you need to re-evaluate your goals. If, however, you are driven to own and manage a captioning business, you should carefully consider the rather daunting list of responsibilities you will be assuming.

Sales and Marketing

For starters, you better be good at selling, or hire someone who is. If you're going to call your local station to caption its 6 p.m. news, first you have to determine the right person to approach. Start with the wrong person - either too high or too low in the hierarchy - and you may not get to first base. Once you figure out the proper person to contact, you'll probably find that the individual has already been approached with the idea by at least one national company with years of experience in the business. Unless you have previous captioning experience, you are already at a disadvantage. You may be able to compete from a price standpoint, but how do you know what your competition charges? You can always ask your contact at the station, but my experience is that TV executives are shrewd negotiators, and they sometimes "fudge" when telling you about the bids already on their desk. Don't let yourself get caught up in a bidding war, or you may find yourself winning the contract at a price you can't afford.

When my wife, Mary, and I started our captioning business (in a far less sophisticated age, caption-wise), it was one year from our first approach to fruition - a 56-game contract to caption baseball. We later learned captioning baseball was a "tryout" of our services that would, if we were any good, lead to our first seven-day-a-week news contract. If captioning were our only business, we would have operated in the red, without any income, for one year, and we would have lived meagerly on the income in our second year.

Customer Relations

Once you have the account, you have to keep the client happy. Somebody has to smooth over the problems if you miss a few minutes of captions due to computer failure or "operator error" because someone dialed into the wrong encoder. You have to be ready to explain and correct technical problems and make concessions or guarantee changes when necessary.

Scheduling

Of all the hurdles to overcome in the captioning business, I believe scheduling, combined with controlled growth, are the most difficult to manage.

Getting your first client is a major hurdle, but it doesn't stop there, of course. There's an axiom in business that you must keep growing or die. You can't stand still, resting on your laurels. Often, one contract is not enough work to keep a bare minimum staff employed full time. Let's assume you live near a city with three competing stations, and you've convinced one station to contract with you to provide captioning for its one-hour 6 p.m. newscast and its 35-minute newscast from 11 to 11:35 p.m., seven days a week. That's 1.5 hours of captioning per day, and a total of 10.5 hours per week. You realize you can't service such a contract with only one captioner. Although the schedule is hardly grueling, you have to provide for regular days off, vacations every so often and illnesses.

The station may also want a contract for "emergency" captioning, such as during tornado or flood warnings, or even to caption extended coverage in the aftermath of a tornado or flooding, so you will need someone with whom you can rotate during long-term captioning events. You know you'll need at least two captioners, at a minimum, just to cover 10.5 hours of scheduled news per week. You'd have to charge more than the current market will bear to support two people on 10.5 hours per week.

Logically, since you're now established in the business of captioning local news, it should be easier to get your second client. It would seem that the two remaining stations are the most likely targets, until you realize that all three stations provide local newscasts during the exact same times of 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. That prevents you from expanding your hours with the same captioning staff. In order to caption an extra 10.5 hours per week, you would have to expand your staff by at least one, and more likely two, additional captioners.

Some captioning companies supplement their broadcast captioning by providing their services to city councils, school boards and planning commissions. Quite often, there are schedule conflicts once again when it becomes apparent that most council and board meetings occur on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings beginning around 7 p.m. Not only do different districts conflict with each other, but they all potentially conflict with news broadcast times before and after the meetings. Economy of scale does not work in the captioning business until you are very large, with varied programming, in multiple time zones. Remember, captioning takes place around the clock, at times not considered normal work hours. That includes every weekend and holiday, so you have to factor that into scheduling as well.

I can perhaps best illustrate this with an example from our business. We had several hours of news each day, beginning at 5 a.m. and ending at 11:35 p.m., with newscasts at 11:30 a.m. and again in the 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. slot. In addition to the news, we captioned sports. Starting times varied by day of the week, as well as time zone. Regardless of the time zone where a team is geographically located, the team plays half its games on the road. Not only does the news go on 365 days a year, but sports coverage increases on weekends and holidays. Remember all those sports on television on Thanksgiving and New Year's Day? Somebody has to caption them, and if you become a captioner, weekends and holidays will become more than another workday. In most cases, they are your busiest days. Of course, if you're like me, you'd be watching the games anyway, so why not get paid for it?

If your plan is to freelance to supplement your income, you have to make sure you can always leave your freelance assignment at a set time in order to cover the unflinching news schedule. My 11 years of experience in the freelance industry leads me to believe that a deposition attorney's "one last line of questioning" would put you out of the captioning business in short order.

Let's discuss "emergency" captioning some more, because this is a segment of the business that simply can't be understood without experiencing it. The FCC has decreed that if a station deems a matter important enough for its hearing viewers, then it is important enough to advise the nonhearing viewers as well. Gary Robson noted in his June 2000 JCR article "Emergency Coverage Must Be Captioned" that the FCC has required all TV stations to make emergency broadcasts available to people with hearing disabilities.

Several methods may be used to provide this information, including captioning. As a result, local stations may be scrambling to sign contracts with captioners for emergency broadcasts. Sounds like a great opportunity for a new captioning start-up business, right? Well, yes and no.

At first blush, it would seem like the ideal supplement to a regular news contract. After all, you have spare captioner manpower between broadcasts, and emergencies tend to be long term, as compared to half-hour and hourlong newscasts. And considering the nature of the work, you should be able to charge a premium for the service. But let's examine the responsibilities associated with emergency captioning contracts. First and foremost, people's lives are at stake, and some of those people depend on your captions for fast, accurate information on a developing situation. The captions you provide may give viewers the information they need to make life-or-death decisions. It could be information about the direction of travel of a fast-moving fire that requires some people to evacuate their homes immediately. Or it might be a release of toxic fumes where the best advice is to shelter in place, close up the home and wait for the fumes to dissipate.

Obviously, such information is time critical. Fires get out of control sometimes in a matter of minutes, and shifting winds can change evacuation orders in a heartbeat. So the first thing you have to determine is your response time in the event of an emergency. Assuming you've already decided to carry a cell phone and/or a beeper 24 hours a day so that you can be reached in the event of an emergency, what is your guaranteed response time from the station's call to you to the time you can be dialed in and on-air providing the emergency information? The answer to this question will affect not only the lives of every viewer depending on your captions, but it will have a profound impact on your life and the lives of all your employees.

Naturally, you want to be of service to both the station and the caption-dependent viewers in your area, so the shorter the response time, the better. Let's assume you contract to be on 15-minute standby for purposes of covering emergencies. Most stations would consider that an acceptable response time, and you know that it only takes about five minutes or so to turn on your computer and dial into the station's encoder. However, that also means that you or one of your captioners must stray no farther than 10 minutes from a complete captioning studio at all times.

You must do all your shopping within 10 minutes of the studio if it's your shift to stand by for emergencies. If your post office is more than 15 minutes away, you'll have to delay picking up your mail until someone else is on standby. On Christmas, Thanksgiving and every other day of the year, someone has to be prepared to caption within 15 minutes of receiving a phone call. You will have to begin living your life within a geographic radius defined by a 10-minute drive from your studio. That's what I mean when I say it will have a profound impact on your life and the lives of all your employees.

That response time can be adjusted, perhaps to as long as 30 minutes, assuming the station is willing to accept that level of service. Anything longer than 30 minutes, and the information can be too late for some of the viewers depending on you for a critical lifeline.

If you're supplementing your scheduled on-air captioning with meetings and freelance work, you must first be within your contracted response time from a captioning studio and be able to leave on a moment's notice or see to it that someone else is standing by in the event of an emergency.

Staffing

Even if you have managed to find clients and create a schedule that generates a profit for the business and a living for the captioners, you still have to find the qualified captioners to do the work. Finding those qualified people to work in your business is a challenge in itself. Don't underestimate the difficulty of finding good employees, and don't underestimate the problems one incompetent captioner can create with your clients.

Training and Supervision

You're the boss, so training new captioners becomes your responsibility. You'll have to anticipate your manpower needs and put court reporters in training before you need them. It's the chicken and egg dilemma. Once you've maxed out your employees and your own personal availability, you won't be able to take on more business until you have more captioners available. Yet, you don't want to spend the time training captioners before you need them.

People live in different areas of the country for various reasons. Some want to be close to family. Some prefer one type of weather over another. Some are more comfortable in a particular region of the country. We owned a business in the San Francisco Bay Area, reputedly one of the most beautiful places to live in the world, and we offered the highest captioning rates in the nation at the time, yet we found it very difficult to attract competent people.

Don't underestimate the time it takes to train a court reporter to become a captioner. My experience is three to six months on average. Be prepared for the occasional washout. Not everyone has what it takes to become a captioner. Some lack the speed and/or accuracy, and some can't handle the pressure. Even the best court reporter can't always make the transition to captioning. Once you have trained and hired the captioners, it's up to you to monitor their quality on a daily basis and continue the process of training. As your business grows, you will find yourself personally captioning less and spending more time in administration and supervision.

Payroll

If you're going to keep good employees, you have to pay them on a regular basis, even if your clients aren't so conscientious about paying you. You have to be prepared to support the payroll for 60 to 90 days. And if a client winds up "stiffing" you, you still have to pay your employees.

Taxes

There's another mouth to feed that won't go away - Uncle Sam. If you are paying employees, the federal government will demand its share, and as I recall, the government doesn't wait for a check from you. It automatically withdraws what you owe from your checking account. Be prepared to support this expense in the event of a slow-paying client.

Accounting

Someone has to keep the books for the company, including keeping track of payroll and deductions, accounts payable, etc. It doesn't have to be you, but if you don't plan on doing it yourself, then you need to budget for it.

Technical

I've saved the most important for last. You must have a strong technical inclination if you plan to run a captioning business. You will not only be called on to make decisions regarding the type of hardware and software you and your employees use, but you will be expected to be knowledgeable about the equipment used by the stations for whom you caption. This subject is so extensive that it requires further breakdown.

Hardware

First, you have to decide what hardware you and your employees intend to use. If, for instance, you allow your employees to work out of their homes, and you permit your employees to use computer configurations of their choice, you will find it very difficult to troubleshoot any technical problems when they arise. Oftentimes, installing new software can affect settings on a computer, further complicating the troubleshooting process. Of course, the more control you have over selection of the computer, the better. By providing the hardware and software to your employees, and limiting the ancillary programs loaded on the system, you can minimize problems - that is, every problem but where to get the money to pay for your employees' computers and software.

You also have to deal with the hardware on the receiving end - your clients' encoders. For the less knowledgeable clients, you have to know which of the dozen or so availableencoders to recommend - and why - and you also must know how to configure your software settings to accommodate any encoder(s) the client chooses to use.

Bear in mind, according to Murphy's Law, all problems will arise only minutes before airtime, and since you're the owner of the business, you'll be responsible for solving them instantly. I don't recommend this line of work if you're short-tempered, faint of heart or fluster easily.

In our business, my bag of tricks included the added advantage of being able to shout, "Mary, you've got to go on air in three minutes!" Unless, of course, Mary was the one having the problem. In that case, we were usually equipped with enough backup systems to circumvent any problem, at least on an interim basis. During the time we had our business, we had no fewer than two studios in our home, each with its own backup systems, as well as an outside office five minutes away with its own backup system.

That brings up the next subject - redundancy, redundancy, redundancy of hardware. You should always have at least one complete system in reserve in the event of emergencies. In addition, you should have double backups of common problem-causing components, such as modems and serial cables. External modems are easier to change, so they should be required on all your systems and your employees' systems. External modems have the added benefit of providing a bank of lights that can be monitored to assure you that your connection to the encoder is good - and stays good. Steno machines are another necessary component, and no captioning company worth its salt operates without backup steno machines. Not only will they occasionally fail, but they should be serviced periodically, usually requiring shipping to an outside service provider.

Office space is another consideration. If you already have an office for freelance work or court transcripts, that will serve as at least one studio. If you aren't already equipped with a home office, you'll need the standard desk and chair, along with at least two TV sets and all the normal office accoutrements.

Most captioners have, as a minimum, a small 18-inch satellite dish. The smaller dishes can be installed in homes everywhere, and a large variety of sports are available by subscription. Also, more and more local channels are becoming available on the smaller dishes. However, be aware that FCC restrictions apply to the programming you can receive. For example, a sports subscription will advertise that it offers every game in every market. But you'll frequently find that broadcasts of teams playing in your local market will be blocked to everyone in your zip code, either because they're being broadcast by a local rights carrier or because the event was not sold out.

In some cases, no matter what services you subscribe to, you won't be able to receive the broadcast of the game taking place a few blocks from your studio. The reverse applies to local news. The only local channels you can subscribe to on the dish are the ones that serve your zip code. You might be able to secure a captioning contract with a major local channel 70 to 100 miles from your office, yet not be able to receive its broadcasts via roof-top antenna, cable or satellite.

You have to consider if you need outside office space as well. Most captioning companies have at least one seven-foot or larger steerable satellite dish, but most homes don't have the space to install such a large piece of equipment, or they are restricted by building codes or covenants from installing a large dish. In that case, outside office space may be required. You'll need to determine if you want Ku or C band, or both, and you'll have to develop some expertise and understanding about how to select the appropriate satellite for the particular broadcast you're captioning.

Captioning for some networks will require you to purchase a proprietary descrambler, after you've proven a legitimate need for the descrambler. In addition to the outside office itself, you'll need to equip it with desks, computers, phone lines and all the components required to caption. If you have employees working in the office, you may require extra space and equipment for their use, including enough phone lines to support all your studios simultaneously.

These are a few of the hardware components with which you need to be concerned. For further information on the subject, please see Gary Robson's article in the March 2000 issue of the JCR entitled "Captioning at Home."

Software

It goes without saying that selection of software is key to any captioning business. First, will it do the job? Will it work with the hardware at the station for whom you caption, and is it full-featured? Does it seamlessly blend live display and realtime captions? Second, is there 24-hour support when problems occur? Third, are you sufficiently versed in the software so that you can provide technical support to your employees when they encounter "minor" software problems? Finally, will your software support the next era of digital encoders when they become available, or will you have to replace all your software in the near future? (Since the digital standards have only recently been agreed upon, no software has yet been written that supports the next generation of encoders for digital television.) A working knowledge and familiarity with either Microsoft Word or WordPerfect is useful for preparing scripts for broadcast, and an understanding of macros within those word processing programs will come in handy as well.

Apart from the captioning software, you should have an above-average understanding of the Internet and the World Wide Web. You and your employees should be able to exchange files as well as research subjects in order to prepare for broadcasts. In your spare time, you can build a Web page for the business. Nowadays, I would think it's difficult to be considered a serious player in the industry without a presence on the World Wide Web.

Utilities

Of all the links in the chain of providing closed captions, you have the least control over utilities - the providers of your power and phone lines. The most obvious need is for electricity. Without electricity, the computer, steno machine, modem, television, audio amplifier and fax machine won't operate. Cable TV usually goes out long before the power, so a rooftop antenna is recommended and a backup audio line via a dial-up number at the station is indispensable. You should also seriously consider wiring your captioning office with a dedicated power line. That means no other household appliances are on the same circuit as your computer and other necessary captioning components. A dedicated line should prevent loss of caption data when, for example, your refrigerator or air conditioner kicks on and your lights dim for a split second.

For short-term power outages, you can rely on a UPS, or uninterruptible power supply. Essentially a large battery, a UPS is usually plugged into the wall outlet, and the computer and other necessary components to caption are plugged into the UPS. A UPS is able to power the minimum captioning configuration for between 10 minutes to an hour. For longer duration power outages, a gasoline or diesel-powered generator is necessary. A generator can provide an indefinite power source, as long as the fuel is replenished. Be certain you select a generator of sufficient voltage and amperage to meet your needs. Remember the tornado warning and flooding example

I used in the discussion about scheduling? If you're captioning extended coverage of such an emergency from within the affected area, chances are you're doing it without benefit of power from the local electric company. Whether the emergency is a tornado, flood, hurricane, earthquake or fire, chances are good that widespread power outages will occur.

As important as power is to captioning, phone lines are even more important. Phone lines are not only used for transmission of data, but for receiving broadcast audio when you're captioning remotely outside the local area. Fax lines are useful for transmitting information to a captioner while on-air. Routing panels for phone line selection are useful when only one line is experiencing trouble.

If you're properly prepared, you can support your own power needs in the event of an emergency. But if your phone lines are down, you're pretty much up the proverbial creek. While it is possible to caption using cellular service, I'm confident the cellular lines will be overwhelmed almost immediately in the event of an emergency, and my experience with cell phones is that even when they work, they're not dependable enough to rely on for transmitting caption data. You don't have a lot of options in this event.

When we had our company in the Bay Area, we were able to have our emergency captioning service considered an Essential Service by Pacific Bell, the local phone company. As such, Pacific Bell was to place restoration of our service among its highest priorities in the event of an emergency. Our final fallback position was to load a complete captioning system (with some backup equipment included) into our car and drive to the studio to caption the emergency from the studio, using power supplied by the station's generator. When people's lives are at stake, you have to do everything in your power to provide your services.

Next month, I'll talk about captioning from home as an independent contractor and working in-house for an established captioning company.


About the Author

Kevin W. Daniel, RDR, CRR, and Mary Cox Daniel, RDR, CRR, from Henderson, Nev., are the authors of Writing Naked: Principles of Writing for Realtime and Captioning. This article is an excerpt from the book, which is available through NCRA by calling 800-272-6272 or visiting the NCRA Store.