Censorship and Captioning

By Gary Robson

Censorship and the First Amendment may be one of the most misunderstood concepts in America today. In the context of television, it is now tightly interwoven with closed captioning in several ways.

To understand the issue, let's start with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It states, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

The key words are right at the beginning. "Congress shall make no law." If privately owned television stations refuse to air a program, they are not violating anyone's First Amendment rights. Only if Congress directs the FCC to stop that program from being broadcast could the specter of free speech violation be raised.

Government "Censorship" of Captions
This issue came to a head some years ago when Section 687(c)(2) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was amended to state that after September 30, 2001, Department of Education captioning funds may only be used for video description and captioning of educational, news, and informational television. At first glance, this is hard to argue with. The Department of Education should fund educational programming, right?

When the Department of Education (DoE) released its list of programs affected by the ruling, people were swiftly up in arms. Why is ABC's Good Morning America approved for DoE captioning funds, but not NBC Sports? Why Amazing Animal Videos, but not Emergency Vets? Why Clifford the Big Red Dog, but not Courage the Cowardly Dog?

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) called it censorship. They felt that the government was determining what shows deaf people could and couldn't watch. Others pointed out that the government wasn't preventing them from watching the "disapproved" shows -- the Department of Education simply was no longer going to pay for them. The networks airing those shows are still free to pay for the captioning themselves.

Petitions began to circulate on the Internet as soon as the lists were released. Being a fairly well-known captioning advocate, I received hundreds of e-mails about the changes. One deaf man, apparently believing I had some influence with the DoE, set up his online petition so that every time someone "signed" it on his Web site, a copy of the petition was e-mailed to me. I received thousands of copies of the petition before I got his automatic e-mailer shut down.

Like many other e-mails that get passed from person to person around the Internet, these complaints picked up misinformation as they went. It appeared that many people reacted to the e-mails without checking any facts first. Here are some of the bad "facts" included in e-mails that I received:


  • The government is cutting captioning funding!
    The DoE has re-aligned their spending to conform with the new rules. No money is being pulled. It is simply being used for different programs. The DoE has continued to put $12 million per year into captioning.


  • Certain shows are being "banned" for deaf people!
    The Telecommunications Act requires that broadcasters caption a given minimum number of hours of programming each day. On January 1, 2006, all new programs are required to have captioning. The producers of the "disapproved" shows aren't being told not to caption their programs. They're being told to find funding somewhere else. If the network drops captions from one show, they'll have to put captions on a different show to meet their minimum requirements.


  • The Bush administration is controlling what deaf people watch!
    The change to IDEA was voted on in 1999 -- during Clinton's administration -- and implemented during Bush's administration. The decisions were not made by Congress. They were made by the DoE. Some may question the DoE's decision process, which used a panel of five anonymous reviewers to recommend what shows were "educational, news, and informational" and which weren't, but that's standard operating procedure within the DoE.


The future of government-sponsored captioning is certainly in question. This particular change to DoE funding didn't reduce the number of dollars being spent, but many people are questioning why the government pays for captions at all. There is no government agency paying for the sound technician or camera operator, yet the networks manage to provide sound and video. They are required by law to provide captions on most programming now, and the captioning is a tiny percentage of the overall cost. Why not let private industry pay the bill?

Captioners Censoring Captions
Realtime captioners have a unique position on broadcast television. Between the camera operator and your television set, the picture and sound pass through a variety of studios, control rooms, and switches. Editors and producers can pull the plug, switch to a different camera, or cut to a commercial to prevent the worst gaffes from going out. Many live shows have a slight delay to give censors a chance to "bleep" anything that shouldn't go out.

Captions go directly from your captioning software to the broadcast signal. In all but a few cases, there is nobody in a position to block, redirect, or erase your captions. Thus, you face a unique dilemma. In court or CART, you write exactly what you hear. But what do you do in the middle of a sportscast when someone shouts out an obscenity and it doesn't get bleeped?

You may be worried that if you write that word, you'll get in trouble. On rebroadcast, they may edit the obscenity out of the audio track and leave the captions alone, leaving the curse word you wrote standing out like a sore thumb. The FCC levied fines of $550,000 against CBS stations for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during Super Bowl XXXVIII. What might they do to you?

On the other hand, it's very difficult to edit and paraphrase during a fast-moving broadcast. Can you really be expected to censor the captions on the fly? And should you do it? Don't deaf people have the right to read everything that the hearing people hear?

I contacted the FCC about this issue, and nobody was willing to make a statement for the record -- such statements have to come from their legal department, and I didn't get through to anyone there. Everyone I spoke to, however, agreed that as long as the caption matched the audio, it is extremely unlikely that anyone would take action against the captioner, even if the audio is bleeped later.

This question should be addressed with each company you work for, whether it be a captioning firm or a broadcaster. Putting a clause in your contract covering obscenity is the best way to protect yourself from future problems.

This, however, raises the issue of accidental obscenity in a blooper. How can you prevent that? You may need obscenities in your dictionary -- especially if you write for cable networks -- but you don't want to write them inadvertently. If the majority of your work is for broadcasters that would never air the worst of the words, pull them out of your primary dictionary and make a "naughty words" job dictionary. Then you can include it only when you think it's appropriate. Either way, you'll probably want to change the way you write swear words to make them very difficult to write accidentally. Double stroke them, add an asterisk, or do something funky with your number bar. My wife, Kathy, goes a step farther. She has no obscenities in her dictionary at all, and fingerspells them when she needs to write them.

You'll also have to deal with your phonetic stroke for each swear word. Today's smart translation systems are perfectly capable of generating an obscene word phonetically. Define all of your potential phonetic swear words as something innocuous like a space or the nearest phonetic word.

Also, make sure you have a stroke for "(bleep)." If you're writing live and something does get censored out of the audio, you need something to show deaf viewers what just happened.

Do-It-Yourself Censorship at Home
Closed captions aren't the only information in line 21 of a TV signal. There are Internet links for interactive TV and extended data services (XDS) with such handy information as the current time and date so smart VCRs don't have to blink 12:00 any longer. There is also information to allow parents to censor what their children see and hear.

The best-known system for this is the V-chip. It uses various ratings systems, but by far the most common is called the US TV Parental Guidelines, a ratings system similar to the MPAA's system for movie ratings. It defines each show as TV-Y (all children), TV-Y7 (children 7 and older), TV-G (all ages), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (children 14 and over), or TV-MA (mature audiences only). There's also a category for "not rated," which applies to things like news.

The US TV Parental Guidelines also allows further refinement of the rating. The assigned rating may carry "flags" specifying what type of potentially objectionable content the show has: D for sexually suggestive dialog, V for violence, S for sexual situations, and L for strong language. A horror flick with a lot of swearing in it might be rated TV-PG-VL to indicate that it has both violence and bad language. Shows can also be rated using the MPAA system or either of two Canadian systems, one French and one English. Using a television with V-chip technology, parents can block all programs higher than a specified rating level.

V-chip ratings allow home censoring of entire shows. You can't use the V-chip to just block the objectionable scenes from a movie. Caption TV from Alberta, Canada, has developed a system that embeds codes in the caption data to identify questionable material in the audio and video. Using a special cable TV box, parents can adjust their settings and have words clipped from the audio and portions of scenes covered up or blurred out in the video. This is an offshoot of their earlier product which reads the captions and filters out the bad words.

Legally, CART and captioning are very different. In most cases, CART isn't broadcast, so you're out of the FCC's jurisdiction. CART reporters are acting as interpreters and are generally expected to write exactly what they hear, with no censorship or editorializing.

One thing that CART and captioning have in common in this case is that you should raise the issue of obscenities right up front. If you have a standard contract, make it a clause that your client initials. At the very least, ask the question, "If somebody swears, do I write it or bleep it?"

When dealing with realtime obscenities, an ounce of preparation can save you a pound of ... well ... you fill in the blank.

About the Author

Gary Robson is a freelance writer and captioning consultant. He has written twelve books and more than 200 articles, many of them about captioning and reporting. He has worked in this field since 1987 as a software designer, teacher, engineer, and author. Gary is a contributing editor for the JCR and he lives in Montana, where he and his stenocaptioner wife own a bookstore and a small ranch. For more information, see his Web site at http://www.robson.org/.