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HDTV messes up service for deaf

By Clint Swett – Bee Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 200796-caption1.embedded.prod_affiliate.4.jpg

For two months early this year, Janel Edmiston and her family enjoyed their new Panasonic high-definition TV, which occupies a big chunk of the family room wall in their Elk Grove home.

But for Edmiston, who began losing her hearing at age 23, the pleasure was fleeting.

In March, she said, closed captioning that came via her cable box disappeared.

“It’s not that I’m addicted to TV, but I was missing out on time with my family in the evenings,” Edmiston said of losing the captioning feature. “I’d go into another room (to read or fold laundry) while they were watching TV. … Without captions it’s like they are speaking Russian.”

Edmiston’s problem is a familiar story to a growing number of the estimated 31 million hearing-impaired TV viewers nationwide.

As high-definition TV gains momentum in the United States, broadcasters, set-top box manufacturers and cable and satellite companies are struggling to provide closed captioning.

After numerous complaints and long sessions on the phone with tech support for SureWest, her cable provider, the company recently gave Edmiston an updated cable box still being tested by SureWest engineers.

Though things have improved, problems remain, including last Thursday when the captions slid off the left edge of the screen.

SureWest engineer Steve Keach said his company is constantly receiving updated software from its cable box provider in an effort to improve closed captioning.

“We expect the quality to get better, but like everyone else, we have our issues,” he said.

While most older analog sets provide captions with the touch of a remote control button or via a simple on-screen menu, it’s more complicated to get closed captioning on the newest digital TVs that get their signal through cable and satellite boxes rather than antennas. That’s because the signal is processed by the box and the caption settings must be matched to the resolution of the TV display.

For the deaf community, captioning is a serious issue.

“What would (a hearing person) do if (they) turned on the TV and the volume control wasn’t working and there were no voices or sound accompanying the program?” asked Sheila Conlon Mentkowski, an official with the California Department of Rehabilitation in Sacramento and chairwoman of the National Association of the Deaf’s technology committee.

There appears to be plenty of blame to go around for the captioning troubles, said Larry Goldberg, director of media access at Boston public TV station WGBH and an expert on captioning.

“I’m getting reports all the time about closed-captioning problems,” said Goldberg, who helped write many of the captioning regulations for the Federal Communications Commission.

“If there was one organization we could blame it would make it a lot easier. But there are at least a few different causes.”

For instance, not all broadcasters properly encode their closed-caption data, even though there’s a standard mandated by the FCC, Goldberg said.

In addition, not every channel provides digital closed captions 100 percent of the time. The FCC required that digital captioning be available by 2006, but granted some exemptions.

New networks have four years to implement HD captioning, and networks with revenue under $3 million a year also are exempt.

Some long-time broadcasters however, are saying their newly launched HD channels qualify as new networks, and claim the four-year exemption, wrote Ron Bibler, a deaf financial planner in Great Falls, Mont., and an activist on the issue.

He points to NBC’s Universal HD channel, which he said often doesn’t provide captioning while identical programming on its sister USA Network has the captions. After complaining to NBC, Bibler said, he received a letter from the network saying Universal HD expected closed captioning by the end of 2007. Universal executives could not be reached for comment.

In addition, most high-definition cable and satellite set-top boxes control the caption settings through often obscure and confusing menus. continued reading on next page

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