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Captioning Community

Making the Leap: From Local to National Captioning

By Gary D. Robson

Are you looking to caption at the national level?
Here's how to do it.


You've paid your dues and put in some time captioning on a local level. TV news, perhaps, or your favorite sports team. City council meetings, or a talk show on your cable network's community access channel. Now you're ready to make the leap into national work. How do you prepare yourself? What's going to be different?

Working for the Big Guys

You can sometimes break into local television or cable captioning as a solo operator or with a small team. Not so in national work. As of January 2002, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires every broadcaster to caption nearly half of its new programming. That's 10 hours per day of programming. A local TV station will often let contracts for specific shows, series or newscasts. A network, cable station or satellite station looks for a single company that can handle this grueling schedule in its entirety.

To even bid on a national contract like that, you must demonstrate experience, adequate personnel (including vacation and emergency coverage), backup equipment and business stability. The top networks are partially funded by U.S. Department of Education grants that only a handful of captioning companies qualify for.

This doesn't mean new companies can't break into national programming. VITAC, the largest captioning company, started with only two realtime captioners. Media Captioning Services was a local Southern California firm when it booked the CNN contract that turned the company into a national captioning provider.

If you have a local captioning company, and you'd like to take the company national, you may want to start by entering a partnership or contract arrangement with one of the big firms. The laws are creating so much demand for captioning that the national firms are all searching for realtime captioning resources. Some are willing to contract with a small firm to help cover their overflow work.

Larry Driver took this approach with his firm. To supplement his ongoing NBA contracts and the local PBS station he's been doing for 11 years, his firm has contracted with national companies to help cover their schedule. Larry says the biggest difference between his local contracts and the out-of-state contracts is the control. "You're working with someone else's rules," he says. "Their names are on the contract, so you understandably have to follow their quality control guidelines."

If you'll be working with the big captioning firms, expect to have quality control checks on your work. Some firms have you do the QC checks yourself; others have them done by someone else. Either way, get ready to have your work critiqued. Having someone else point out errors in your work can be an unpleasant experience, but it will raise the quality of your work. It will make you more aware of your mistakes, and most of the big captioning firms have highly experienced people who can advise you on ways to correct writing problems.

Getting Ready to Go

The first thing you should do if you want to caption national programming is to give it a try at home. Choose the kind of work you want to do, set up your writer and computer, and start writing realtime. You'll find that even if you stick with the same kind of programs you're doing now, national is different from local. In news, for example, you'll need a deeper knowledge of national and world affairs and a thorough familiarity with the people and places of national interest.

In national sports, the announcers talk more of other games and compare players and plays more with the stars of the past. You'll have to carefully review almanacs and record books to make sure you have the names of the key players, coaches and teams. According to Driver, "There's not that much difference during the game itself. The pregame shows get challenging, though. They're talking about everything but the upcoming game."

Specializing is a good way to get started, but if you want to work for a big national captioning firm, you'll have to be ready for anything.

"At VITAC, we strongly encourage a well-rounded background of all types of programming," says Kathy DiLorenzo, who is in charge of realtime captioning at VITAC. "A great captioner can walk into any programming and do a good job, whether news, sports or entertainment. Keep in mind that in many cases there are crossovers. A national newscast will include sports and entertainment stories, as well. A sporting event may talk about current events or, more importantly, be interrupted for a special news report. And entertainers' names pop up in any kind of programming."

Kathy Robson, a freelance captioner who works for VITAC, found this out when she was captioning a nationally broadcast baseball game, and the network broke in with news of Princess Diana's death. "I love baseball," Kathy says, "and even though it requires concentration, I can relax somewhat when I'm captioning a baseball game. The transition from baseball to the emotionally charged story of Princess Diana was jarring, and it's hard not to let something like that throw you." She ended up jumping back and forth between baseball and the Princess Diana story for the rest of the game.

Robson is a strong believer in the well-rounded generalist theory of captioning. Just as a court reporter must be an expert in everything and be able to spell every word correctly (or at least know where to look them up), a captioner must read a wide variety of reference materials and stay current on the news. The daily newspaper is a must, but if you're doing national work, it isn't enough. As an example, she recommends People magazine. "It's a great place to learn about the celebrities who will be mentioned in your captioning work," she says.

This doesn't mean you can't have specialties. If you are a serious animal lover and the firm you work for has the Animal Planet contract, by all means ask for the work. People who love a particular type of programming are more likely to be good at it. Robson captions most of the rodeo coverage on TNN because she would most likely be watching the broadcasts anyway if she wasn't captioning them. She knows the names of the competitors and the specialized terminology of the sport.

When you are practicing, don't just set up CAT software. Use your captioning software and simulate actual on-air captioning. DiLorenzo says that "thorough and effective simulation will include writing the material, building captioning dictionaries, properly managing those dictionaries, and, most importantly, watching the on-air captions for the proper presentation, which includes stylistic issues, placement and pacing. One is ready to apply for national work when that simulated programming is presented at no less than 98.5 percent accuracy."

Generally speaking, the fine details of presentation are much more important in national captioning. You'll have to be able to move captions around between the top and bottom of the screen on-the-fly to avoid covering action, and even shift them over horizontally to avoid covering the score "bugs" in the corner of the screen in national sports. Make sure that while writing accurate realtime, you are able to italicize names of publications and use quotes correctly.

There are equipment considerations for national work as well. Tammie Shedd of Visual Audio Captioning adds, "You enter a totally different realm in terms of reliability. Your site setup for network captioning has to include backup power and redundant phone lines." Many of these requirements come directly from the networks. Depending on the job, you may be required to have multiple audio sources (telephone and satellite, for example) at all times, so that if you lose one, you can pick up with the other.

The Mental Game

The transition from local to national isn't as big a jump as it used to be. Widespread satellite use means that your local game just might be picked up and broadcast nationwide. Local and national sportscasters aren't all that different, with the few exceptions mentioned earlier. The cadence of the newscasts and the focus on world and national events takes getting used to. But the biggest hurdle you must overcome in making the leap is the mind game.

"You're working with a higher-level production crew," says Carol Studenmund of LNS. "Things go wrong in local broadcasts that just don't happen with the top professionals at the networks, and I feel the need to step up to their level."

After putting in the practice and simulation time, and working on building up your dictionary, you may feel completely ready to go. Many new captioners never feel ready. They simply have to jump in and do it. Even if you do feel prepared, though, stage fright can strike.

"Don't underestimate the effect it will have on you," says Kathy Robson. "It may be in the first minute, or it may take 10 minutes, but at some point it will hit you that people all over the country - or even the world - could be watching your work." Robson strongly recommends developing a personal relaxation routine and using it both before the broadcast and during commercial breaks.

Studenmund advises visualizing your audience and their needs. "I'll sit here in Portland, Oregon," she says, "and picture a couple of die-hard Eagles fans sitting in a bar in Philadelphia where it's noisy and they're depending on my captions. I'm working for them. I have to meet their needs and represent my profession well."

For some, the invisible audience is not nearly as much of an issue as knowing that your boss is watching. And your co-workers. And your friends. If you are working from home, make sure you have privacy. Shut the door and push your spouse and kids out of the room. Lock up the cats and dogs and unplug the telephone. If you're working on-site at the captioning company or broadcast studio, close your door or sit facing a wall so you don't have to look at the people around you. You don't want to let anything break your concentration.

Of course, it hits everyone differently. Realtime captioning is a performance. Some people experience stage fright, while others get an intense adrenaline rush that heightens their senses and intensifies their concentration. No matter how many other captioners you talk to, nobody can predict how it will hit you.

You Want Me to Write What?

If you've been writing mostly local news and sports, then you're used to working in a PG-rated environment. This won't be the case when you break into national work. Pay channels like HBO and ShowTime carry R-rated programming - and it's not just the movies. Listen to the dialogue in The Sopranos sometime. Comedy channels get downright raunchy, and the explicit sex channels aren't exempt from captioning rules, either.

If you go to work for a national captioning firm, ask about their policies on writing obscenities. For the most part, anything that's in the audio should be in the captions. Sometimes the broadcaster will make an exception and tell captioners not to write certain words or phrases. The FCC's opinion is that if it's OK for the soundtrack, it's OK for the captions. Either way, if you stay true to the audio or follow the broadcasters' guidelines, you shouldn't have any legal problems.

Eventually, you may find yourself faced with captioning something that you just don't feel comfortable with. It may be explicit sexual content, graphic violence or something that's disturbing because of your religious beliefs or personal philosophy. If this kind of work is just an occasional occurrence, then the best thing to do is usually to grit your teeth and handle it as professionally as you can.

If you find yourself regularly being assigned to caption material you consider objectionable, talk to your employer and see if they can accommodate you. Ask for help rather than being confrontational. Recognize that your employer may have large contracts at stake, and that it can be difficult to find captioners willing to do certain types of work, but most companies will try to work with you if you feel strongly enough about it.

When Tammie Shedd was in charge of realtime captioning at the National Captioning Institute, the company got the contract to caption Night Calls for the Playboy Channel, which contains some fairly explicit sexual material. "We tried to be considerate to our people," said Shedd. "We explained the show to our staff and did some careful arranging of schedules. When using teams, we tried not to mix male and female captioners so that they wouldn't be uncomfortable." As they hired new people, however, Shedd told them during the interview that this kind of work was to be part of their job.

Going Straight to the Top

Do you have to be a local captioner before you can do national work? Not necessarily. Of course, the more experience and credentials you can put on your résumé, the better.

DiLorenzo says, "While I would hire a qualified local captioner or a beginning captioner without certification, I think certification says a lot about the individual, the fact that they went the extra mile to be certified in their field. When I'm talking to an applicant and they say things like 'I never needed to be certified,' or 'nobody ever paid me to take that test,' that says a whole lot about that individual. As opposed to the person who found the need to be certified without thought of who would give them something for it."

Whether you're just starting out as a captioner, or whether you have years of local captioning under your belt, working for the big networks and national broadcasters is a different experience. The high profile and high prestige are captivating to some and frightening to others.

If you're thinking about it, why not try it? Turn on your television and realtime your favorite show. This could be the start of something big.

About the Author
Gary Robson is a Contributing Editor for the JCR. He has written several books, including Alternative Realtime Careers, which was published by NCRA Press in July 2000. He developed the Gemini ergonomic steno machine and taught at a court reporting school for several years. Gary and his wife founded Cheetah Systems in 1987 and sold it in 1997. More information about captioning can be found on his Web site at