Race against the clock: the challenges of captioning live sport

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Friday, 31 August 2012 13:02pm

Special feature: With the Paralympics gripping the nation’s attention, Media Access Australia’s Eliza Cussen takes a look at the work going on behind the scenes to let Deaf and hearing impaired Aussies in on the action.

Captioning of sport has lagged behind other types of TV, and while the amount of captioned sport coverage is now on the rise, there are a number of factors which make the logistics of delivering sports captions a unique challenge for broadcasters.

Hearing Jennifer Wardle speak, I think of elocution lessons and people walking with books on their heads. Australians usually blend their words, adding vowel sounds between words to form a continuous flow. Wardle’s voice, on the other hand, is clear and clean.

Wardle works as a re-speaking captioner for Ai Media, the company with the FOXTEL sports contract. Wardle must listen and speak simultaneously, a skill only 30 per cent of us possess. As AFL commentators babble in her headphones, Wardle re-speaks what she hears in to a microphone. Voice recognition software dictates her voice as live captions which appear on TV seconds after the commentator spoke. While she listens, Wardle must watch for errors and change the colour and position of the captions. It’s a lot to do in just a few seconds.

Jennifer Wardle captioning a football game.

“We can keep up with the commentators as long they don’t speak over the top of each other. That’s when you as a captioner have to choose which is the most meaningful bit being said,” said Wardle. “Do you continue with the same person, do you caption the interruption or do you try to summarise both? So that’s part of the skill as well – thinking about what’s most valuable to the reader of the captions and captioning that content.”

The key, especially when it comes to sports captioning, is preparation. Re-speakers need time to program in words the software might have trouble deciphering. The Samoan rugby team, for instance, with names such as Maurie Faasavalu and Faatoina Autagavaia, poses a challenge. The best captioners have a love of language and get kicks out correct punctuation. The best sports captioners love language and the sport they’re captioning.

As the play of the ball is visible on screen, captioners focus less on this and more on communicating the commentary that is of most value to the viewer. “Because captions take up a lot of space on the screen you don’t want them there if they’re getting in the way of the ball if you don’t need them there,” said Wardle. “So we like to the let the viewer watch the game without the captions intruding.”

It has taken a long time for re-speaking to become accepted by the industry. Traditionally, live captions are done by stenographers – professionals with a level of skill comparable to that of an accomplished pianist. Because of this there are few people willing to undergo the years of training required, and fewer companies willing to pay for them.

Media Access Australia’s Television Manager, Chris Mikul has watched the industry evolve over 20 years. “Good re-speaking can be as good as stenocaptioning,” said Mikul. “But there is a minimum level of quality you associate with stenocaptioning.”

The quality of re-spoken captions has improved noticeably over the last couple of years. Much of this comes down to developments in technology. The speech recognition software used by Ai Media is version 11. It wasn't even commercially usable until version eight. This technology is backed up by the networks’ legal requirement to have captions of adequate quality, which have forced captioning providers to up their game.  

Legislation plays a key role in providing access to sports coverage. Sports captioning only came about in 2001 after captioning during primetime became compulsory. There are no regulations that specifically cover sport on free-to-air TV, and subscription TV providers only have to caption ten per cent of programs on five of their sports channels this year.

“For a long time the Australian Government didn’t impose any captioning regulation on subscription TV,” said Mikul. “They accepted the arguments that it’s a growing industry and, with Australia’s small population, it’s unfair to expect them to caption as much as their counterparts in the UK and US.”

Wardle, however, has found the attitude of the TV networks more cooperative. “I actually would have thought it’s a little begrudging but what I’ve seen is that it’s something [networks] want to do. Sometimes they have limitations of budget but they continue to grow the amount of captions on TV ahead of their legal requirements which is always a good sign.”

The Paralympic Games is being broadcast on ABC2 and is available on the iView catch-up service. Captions are available for all Paralympics coverage on the ABC and are provided by Captioning And Subtitling International and Caption It.

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