Real-time captioners operate a computer-aided transcription (CAT) stenotype system to create closed captions for use in live television broadcasts, in classroom instruction, or in other scenarios requiring live translating or interpreting on the computer. Computer-aided real-time translation, or CART, refers to the use of machine steno shorthand skills to produce real-time text on a computer. Generally, captioning systems use a modified stenotype machine connected to a computer. The real-time captioner inputs the captions phonetically (transcription or speech sounds) on the steno machine, and the sounds are then translated into English words by the computer using a special dictionary created by the captioner. During a live broadcast, the captions are entered as the program progresses, much as a court reporter transcribes a trial as it progresses. The input data is sent along telephone lines to the broadcast point, where the caption codes become part of the television signal.
Real-Time Captioner Career History
Real-time captioning technology arose from a need to make live broadcasts accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people. To meet this need, the National Captioning Institute (NCI), founded in 1979, became the chief architect of the computer-based technology needed to bring captions to real-time audiences nationwide. At first, the NCI provided captions only for prerecorded programs. Captions were prepared in advance by people who were not court reporters. It soon became apparent, however, that captions were needed for live television, so the NCI went to work developing a system that could prepare captions for live broadcast.
The NCI first introduced real-time captioning to eager audiences in April 1982 when it captioned the Academy Awards. Today, real-time captioners create captions for a wide range of live broadcasts on network, cable, syndication, and pay-per-view services. All programs on primetime schedules of the three major commercial networks are now captioned, many by real-time captioners.
Real-time captions are generated within seconds after a word is spoken. They are made possible by highly skilled court reporters, who receive months of specialized retraining to become first-class real-time captioners.
The Job of Real-Time Captioners
The refined skills of real-time captioners are called upon every day to bring the latest news, sports, and entertainment to a diverse group consisting not only of the deaf and hard-of-hearing, but also young children learning to read and those learning English as a second language. While captioning a live program, meeting, or other event may seem rather straightforward on the surface, there is a great deal of work, anxiety, and preparation that goes into ensuring that the words appearing on screen come out as smoothly and effortlessly as possible. Real-time captioning requires much dexterity and discipline to be able to reach the higher speeds required—250 words a minute—and good brain-to-hand coordination to get it all down quickly and accurately.
There is also much preparation work that must be done by real-time captioners before they can caption a live television broadcast. It takes about one and a half to two hours to prepare for an average news broadcast, using preparation materials obtained from the broadcaster and the captioner’s own research. (Special broadcasts such as holiday parades, the Super Bowl, or the Olympics can take days or even weeks of preparation.) Captioners call this pre-show preparation dictionary-building.
Captioners working for established captioning houses will usually have access to all types of reference materials— everything from Star Stats Who’s Who in Hollywood to the Congressional Staff Directory. Captioners working on their own will want to think about what kinds of materials to include in their own libraries.
Real-time captioners prepare for a job by going through resource materials to find words that might come up during a broadcast, then develop steno codes that they will use to “write” these words when the words come up during the broadcast. It is important that captioners test all the briefs developed for complicated names to make sure they are translating properly. Because captioners will hear names and words during the broadcast that they have not prepared dictionary entries for, they must learn to “write around” the actual words and listen for titles. In this way captioners can write “The former Secretary of State” instead of “Henry Kissinger,” for example.
While striving to keep them to a minimum, captioners will occasionally make mistakes that go out over the air. For example, in real-time captioning, the phrase “Olympic tryouts,” which would require the captioner to type five key strokes on a stenotype machine, might come out (and actually did) as “old limp pig tryouts” if strokes are entered that the computer cannot match correctly.
CART reporters also work in classroom settings, where they might be seen with a notebook computer and steno keyboard, sitting next to a deaf person. CART reporters write down everything that happens, making sure the notebook computer screen is turned so the deaf person can see it. To help the client better understand what is going on, they may paraphrase or interpret the proceedings, rather than create a verbatim record, as in a courtroom. Real-time reporters can also cover meetings, with captions shown on large projection screens. Additionally, computer technology allows highly skilled court reporters to provide real-time captioning in the courtroom, which has great value for large numbers of deaf or hard-of-hearing judges, attorneys, and litigants, or those who have difficulty understanding English. Also, judges and attorneys can scroll back to earlier statements during the trial and mark text for later reference.
One major difference between real-time captioning for television broadcast and other live-display settings and verbatim reporting, as is frequently done in courtrooms and lawyers’ offices, is that captioning’s main purpose is to let the viewer who is deaf or hard-of-hearing understand the story being told on the screen. It is not enough to listen only for the phonetic strokes; the realtime captioner must also listen for context.
Sheri Smargon works for a captioning company in Tampa, Florida. “I caption the news for about 12 different stations around the country,” she says. “My company has more, but I have regular cities that I’m usually responsible for. The news consists of anything from a half-hour program to two hours of straight news. I also caption NBA and MLB games.” While captioning, Smargon doesn’t receive a TV picture. “I get an audio feed only, so I just write what I hear,” she says. “Hockey games were the hardest . . . everyone’s name sounds alike!”
Before beginning even limited on-air captioning, captioner trainees must spend at least three to six months in training, eight hours a day, five days a week, and up to one year of real-time captioning before doing certain specialized programming. As a vital part of the production team, captioners must also become intimately familiar with the programs they are captioning to know what to expect and to anticipate the unexpected.
A typical day for a captioner trainee would include preparing for a practice broadcast by creating a job dictionary, then writing that practice broadcast for supervisors, who would make suggestions as to editing, brief form, style, and format. Later, the trainee would review the broadcast and make the necessary dictionary entries. Trainees would sit in on a variety of broadcasts with more experienced captioners.
Real-time captioning for television is generally performed in a production control room, equipped with several television sets and networked computer systems, giving the environment a high-tech look and feel. Sometimes, one captioner will write a show alone; sometimes two captioners will share a show, depending on whether there are commercials or not. No captioner can maintain a high accuracy level without taking regular breaks. On a show with no commercials, two captioners would typically switch back and forth about every 10 minutes.
As a show gets closer to air, the environment in the control room becomes tense, as the real-time captioner scrambles to get lastminute information in the computer. Then a deep breath, and the countdown begins . . . “Good evening, I’m Charles Gibson.”
The captioner strokes the steno keys while listening to the live broadcast, transcribing the broadcast accurately while inserting correct punctuation and other symbols. (Double arrows at the beginning of a sentence indicate that a new speaker is speaking.) Those strokes are converted to electronic impulses, which travel through a cable to the computer. The steno strokes are matched with the correct entries on the captioner’s personal dictionary. That data is then sent by modem to the broadcast site, where it gets added to the broadcaster’s video signal. Within two to three seconds, people across the country can see those captions—if they have televisions with a built-in decoder chip or a set with a decoder connected to it.
Some kinds of captioning can be done from home, mainly broadcasts for local television stations. The equipment needed (which may be provided by the employer) includes a computer, modem, steno machine, and the appropriate software. Captioners may even choose to work for companies that specialize in producing captions remotely, with just an audio feed, thereby allowing more home-based operations. Getting started in the business, however, usually requires an onsite presence, until confidence and trust is established. Obviously, live events that are not broadcast require a real-time captioner on site.
Real-Time Captioner Career Requirements
You should take typing and computer courses to increase your keyboard speed and accuracy and to develop an understanding of word processing programs. Because you’ll be working with a variety of news, sports, and entertainment programs, you should keep up on current events by taking journalism, social studies, and government courses. English composition and speech classes can help you develop your vocabulary and grammar skills.
You should first complete training to become a court and conference reporter (stenographer), which takes anywhere from two to four years. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree in court and conference reporting, or satisfactory completion of other two-year equivalent programs, is usually required. Because of the additional training needed to learn computer and English grammar skills, some twoyear programs have become three-year programs. In fact, many real-time reporters and their employers believe that additional formal education in the arts and sciences is needed to perform the work properly and to adapt to the swift technological changes taking place. They are urging the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), to which most captioners and other reporters belong, to require a bachelor’s degree for entry into the court reporting profession, which would extend to captioning as well. A few four-year college programs already exist, to allow students a well-rounded background. A degree in English (or the primary language in which captioning will be done) or linguistics would be helpful. Others argue, however, that while a formal education is beneficial, many court reporters who never earned a four-year degree are working successfully with high skill levels.
Even after graduating from court reporting school, you will have to undergo more specialized training, during which you’ll hone your reporting skills to achieve the proficiency needed to create broadcast-quality captions.
Certification or Licensing
Typically, the reporter considering real-time captioning work has passed the Registered Professional Reporter (RPR) exam given by the NCRA, or a comparable state certification exam. Potential employers may even require it. The skills and knowledge needed to pass this exam are similar to those required for captioning, though not as stringent. Anyone capable of doing broadcast-quality captioning work can easily get RPR certification.
You should have extreme proficiency in machine shorthand skills and an ability to perform under pressure. Familiarity with CAT systems is usually preferred, as is previous court or field reporting experience. It generally takes several years of court reporting experience to be able to transcribe complex testimony with the high levels of speed and accuracy that real-time captioning demands.
Real-time captioners must also possess an incredible amount of concentration. Besides typing accurately at speeds of 200 to 250 words a minute to keep up with the fastest natural speakers, they must also anticipate commercial breaks so as not to cut off captions in midsentence, insert appropriate punctuation marks and symbols, and watch their own translation closely to correct any problems on the spot.
“I try to stay informed about what’s going on in the world,” Sheri Smargon says, “not just in the news. It helps to know that Eminem has a new record, as well as to know that Kosovo is a province, not a city.”
Exploring Real-Time Captioner Career
Although some core classes on captioning technology are being introduced into court reporting and other stenographic curricula around the country, it is still a “hit or miss” situation, with many schools simply intimidated by the new technology. Good programs exist, however, that are providing beneficial exposure and actually working with local TV stations and area colleges to provide both news captioning and real-timing or steno interpreting in the classroom for deaf students and those with disabilities.
A smart way to prepare for real-time captioning, according to a real-time captioner who hires new graduates for a captioning company, is to practice by transcribing or writing newspaper articles or those from news magazines. Along with helping to build vocabulary skills, this exercise enables you to focus on conflict resolution by seeing the word in print, helps to familiarize you with difficult foreign names and words, and increases awareness of current events, both national and international.
While honing your skills, you may also get good exposure by working with local organizations, such as the Association of Late Deafened Adults, Self-Help for Hard of Hearing Persons, the National Association of the Deaf, the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and other nonprofit groups that might eventually need captioning services. Although the pay will not be as high as it would at a captioning house, the job satisfaction level will be high. It is important to keep in mind that while the major captioning companies do sometimes hire people with little or no training for internships or on-the-job training, there is no substitute for experience.
Captioners are employed primarily by captioning companies such as the NCI and VITAC. These companies contract with broadcasters and production companies to caption live and recorded events. Captioners work either as full-time employees for captioning companies or as freelancers (that is, independent contractors).
You should seek employment at one of the few large captioning companies in the country or contact station managers at your local television stations to inquire about real-time captioning positions. As with many other businesses, the best approach may be simply to start calling the leading companies in the field and the local companies and see who is hiring. Gallaudet University (http://www.gallaudet.edu/) in Washington, D.C., puts out a list of captioning companies.
Before securing a real-time captioning position, you may have to “audition” as part of a pre-interview screening process that involves preparing raw steno notes from a sample tape-recorded program. The notes are then analyzed, with employment consideration based on the results of the evaluation and job experience. A good way to prepare for employment evaluation is to practice on the kind of material you wish to caption and to offer to demonstrate your skills.
Advancement for a real-time captioner is dependent upon performance, with salary increases and promotions to more responsible positions awarded with greater proficiency and tenure. Skilled real-time captioners may advance to supervisory positions.
Earning power for real-time captioners is dependent upon many variables and is often region-specific and a product of “what the market will bear.” In large captioning organizations, real-time captioners can make anywhere from $30,000 for a recent graduate in training to $65,000 or even higher for those experienced and tireless workers who always volunteer for extra hours, overflow work, etc., and who are capable of captioning all kinds of programming. Trainee salaries increase once the captioner goes on the air. According to The O*NET Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the mean annual earnings of all captioners was approximately $45,460.
Salaries for real-time captioners are often in line with salaries for court reporters. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average salaries for court reporters were between $23,690 and $80,300 in 2004.
A fringe benefit of working for a captioning agency for most reporters (particularly students just out of school) is that such agencies generally provide all the equipment, which costs approximately $15,000. Large captioning organizations also offer benefits, such as vacation and health insurance, likely to be provided at a courthouse for court reporters but not at a freelance firm of deposition reporters, for instance.
Real-time captioning for television broadcast is not a nine-to-five job. While many reporting jobs require erratic hours, broadcast captioning is done seven days a week, around the clock. Real-time captioners producing captions for television broadcast will likely work nights, weekends, or holidays, as directed. Shows can air at 5:30 in the morning, at midnight on a Saturday night, or during Thanksgiving dinner.
Given the irregularity of TV schedules, several shifts are needed to cover programming hours scheduled throughout the day. It is imperative that captioners be flexible and dependable and that they not get fatigued, so they can maintain high accuracy levels. How many hours a day a captioner is on the air depends on the level of experience. If new to the air, captioners may do only one or two shows a day, as it takes longer to prepare for a broadcast and review the result in the beginning. An experienced captioner may be on the air three to five hours a day, writing captions for short programs, news broadcasts, or sporting events. In the broadcast setting, real-time captioners do not have to produce transcripts, which eliminates the long hours that go along with that aspect of reporting.
Real-time captioning work can be physically demanding. Along with suffering the mental stress of performing in a live environment, real-time captioners may also be subject to repetitive stress injury, a prevalent industrial hazard for those who perform repeated motions in their daily work. Carpal tunnel syndrome, a type of repetitive stress injury, sometimes afflicts real-time captioners after several years. It can cause prickling sensation or numbness in the hand and sometimes a partial loss of function.
“Captioning and real-timing are totally different from regular court reporting,” Sheri Smargon says. “You have to be a certain kind of person to real-time. I find captioning challenging and rewarding and fun, usually.”
Real-Time Captioner Career Outlook
The NCRA reports a decline in enrollment in court reporting schools. This may be because of the development of automated voice and speech systems—the computer programs that automatically convert speech to written text. However, there are no current systems that can accurately handle multiple speakers, and it’s unlikely that such technology will exist in the near future. Therefore, captioners and court reporters will be in high demand for years to come. New requirements by the Federal Communications Commission are also increasing demands for captioners. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, for example, requires that 95 percent of all new programming on television must be captioned by 2006.
Digital TV (DTV) will also make captioning more desirable and useful to more people, thereby increasing demand for captioners. DTV enhancements will allow viewers with poor vision to adjust text-size, styles, and fonts. DTV will also allow for more non-English letters, as well as more information transmitted per minute.
Captioners should focus first on the area where they want to live and work. To caption area news or city council meetings in a local area or do conventions in a large hotel, captioners must first obtain some costly supplies. These include a laptop or notebook computer, a compatible steno writer, cables, modem, and captioning software. Captioners may also need a character generator to project onto a large convention screen.
Captioners should learn the basic real-time skills that will enable them to do any live translating or interpreting on the computer. With such skills, they will be eligible for a variety of positions, including working in a computerintegrated courtroom; taking real-time depositions for attorneys; providing accompanying litigation support, such as key word indexing; real-timing or captioning in the classroom; or doing broadcast captioning. The future looks great for those who qualify themselves to perform real-time translation.
Other opportunities for the real-time captioner include working with hospitals that specialize in cochlear implants. For late-deafened adults who learned English before sign language, if they learned to sign at all, captions provide a far greater comprehension level. Additionally, some local news stations across the country are working to expand and improve the quality of their local captioning capabilities, providing yet another source of potential employment for the real-time captioner.