How Writing Closed Captions Turned Me off TV For Good

Post-MFA, a writer spends time in the captioning trenches

The fabled year 2000. Survived the apocalypse that was foretold. Need a job though, being just out of grad school. See the ad, interview.

I’ll write your closed captioning, sirs. I’m fresh out of writing school! I can write anything!

I have my shrine to Cather and Hem. I’ve been eating words for breakfast since ’72 — Daniel Pinkwater, Narnia, and so much more. I’ve just done a thesis on Cheever. I pshaw mightily. Behold my MFA, of which I keep a replica in my wallet.

I’ve just done a thesis on Cheever. I pshaw mightily. Behold my MFA, of which I keep a replica in my wallet.

Start on the humble evening shift. 3:30 to midnight. Training mode — you know, like when the manager stands beside the register watching the kid count change. Most everything in the TV industry is on a rush schedule. Most things air “in a couple days.” I am ready to be a cog in the industry, but the industry is not ready for me, for reasons I don’t yet accept. There are rare shows with long turnaround times, and these are the shows that trainees like me do.

Saddle up to the workstation: 13-inch color TV, desktop with hardware interface that makes F2 pause and makes F3 forward a frame and makes F4 play and makes F1 reverse. The familiar qwerty keyboard, once the conduit to prose description, dialogue, imagery, is now a command center, a piece of interfacing hardware like a steering wheel. It controls the VCR.

The what?

The Video Cassette Recorder.

Oh, this is an ancient story, like the bible or mythology?

Yes, and jobs come in on Beta-Max, a plastic tape the exact size of a hardback book with magnetic reels inside it. They come from Burbank, California (I’m in Minneapolis, MN) from production houses working for all the major cable networks. TNT, USA, HBO, TBS, HSN. If you have three letters and [sultry saxophone music], congratulations, you are a TV show maker. Workers in the room down the hall dub these beastly Betas onto VHS and carry them into the front office where we Caption Writers are. They carry them by the armload. Admins process them, assigning us jobs.

Workers in the room down the hall dub these beastly Betas on VHS and carry them into the front office where we Caption Writers are.

Footless Footnote: The back room down the hall is windowless and kitted out with racks and racks of tape duplicating equipment strung together with veins of patch cables. Multiple monitors show silent speakers, captions flashing beneath them. There are level meters twitching and so many fans running that the place hums and you have to speak up. It is 95 degrees in the back room and smells of hot plastic and microchips.

I do as I’m told. I slide my tape into the machine (it seems to hungrily swallow it), and clamp headphones over my ears. I watch the show once, just transcribing straight through, typing up every word I hear spoken, every line. A big blob of half-chewed text, regurgitated words.

It is 95 degrees in the back room and smells of hot plastic and microchips.

I write in a program that accepts two lines of 36 characters and displays words in white fixed-width font over a black background, which is exactly the opposite of the black letters on white pages and white screens that I’ve been reading all my life. Next step in the workflow is I watch again, breaking up the lines, positioning bite-sized blocks, adding line breaks at punctuation. Commas and clauses are like perforations in crackers — unless the dramatic timing calls for something else. Unless…

I add (narrator) or, for certain clients, (voiceover) or (Joan) when Joan is off-screen. Breaking takes hours.

Finally, I watch it a third time, letting it roll and smacking the space bar to assign times. Time stamp, time stamp, time stamp. Using F2 and F3, I find the cuts and tweak the timecode to hit the cuts square.

There are 23.97 frames per second in TV film — or there was then. That’s less than there is now in some HDTVs, but still much more than the number of words that typically pass in one second of reading — then or now! But TV hasn’t bent time: there are as many seconds in a minute as you would expect to find, and the same quantity of minutes in an hour spent in a library, not surprisingly.

The question arises: Is a Caption Writer a writer or a transcriptionist?

I had thought this was a writing gig, but it’s not exactly. Everything is written already. Well, scribbled upon the universe’s scroll — not to say the annals of The History Channel. Whether drafted or not, lines have been spoken; therefore nothing can be created. Not by the captioner, anyway. It looks like writing — yet it’s not.

Or is it?

I go home and check my MFA: yes, it is for creative writing. So what the hell am I doing here?

Foot-loose Footnote: Easy! Earning money to pay back the college loan!

Whether drafted or not, lines have been spoken; therefore nothing can be created. Not by the captioner, anyway. It looks like writing — yet it’s not.

What I know now that I didn’t know then is: The Caption Writer is some type of linguistic intermediary between a machine and a hearing-impaired person or an English-language learner or a noisy room. Accuracy is the CW’s watch word. Verity. The CW is impartial, using punctuation and presentation to represent the speaker’s imperfections, emphases, uncertainty, directness or indirectness. Their ennui, their —

The Grind

Every day, I show up, bring my bike upstairs and change out of sweaty clothes. Not to be literal — and not to be punning with false declarations of “unintended” — but my new workplace is a sweatshop, with dozen of captioners on the floor, sharing desks in shifts from 7 AM to 3 PM, and 3 PM to midnight. In the kitchenette, a 27” inch TV (big!). Like our mother, or a hearth fire. Some type of Sauron’s Eye.

Study the handbook, study the grammar rules. I’ve interned at a publisher, I know about em dashes versus hyphens. The son of a high school English teacher, I grasp my homonyms and I carefully differentiate. Or so I believe.

Soon I’m told that until I reduce my errors-per-job, I will not move to day shift, when the tight turnaround jobs are done — the prime programming. It turns out I do not know essential from non-essential clauses. And I do not know how to punctuate which, which is odd because I usually know which sentences take which punctuation. And all the Norton anthologies in the world could not teach me the difference between PHEW and [sigh], or a [disbelieving scoff] over an [exhales heavily], or the fine gradations on the surface of what I thought was a humdrum HMM and ho-humm MM-HMM.

Quiz!

Good news — you aced it. But isn’t it shocking that TV, not books, makes me learn interjections and introductory clauses. Who could have predicted that, more than my graduate school course of study, more than my workshops and my thesis, it’s a job as TV typist that gets me to finally iron out my it’s/its.

The ultimate captioner’s kōan: to punctuate:

You aced it again!

Comma Chameleon

Over the coming three years, I will type a million commas with a million direct addresses. And 16 years later, I will instruct writers not to overdo their use of proper names with direct address in their stories. “It reads like bad TV, class,” I will say to them, “when your characters are always calling each other by name. Don’t you think, class? I mean, come on, class. Have you ever paced back and forth in front of a whiteboard in a Manhattan classroom like this, class? Have you? Class?”

But I don’t get to write rules yet. And meanwhile, there are as many technical rules to caption writing as grammatical ones. Every caption is data, and data takes time to load. This isn’t some static page that once pressed in ink exists free-floating in an atemporal world! Primitive notion! This is TV! Image and sound! It’s a production! A 35-character caption appearing on the cut, displaying when speech is first uttered, needs to begin loading in the TV’s internal decoder 18 frames prior. That’s 2 characters per frame stored: 35/2=17.5, rounded up because there’s nowhere to put that single odd character but in another, entire frame. Eighteen frames. That’s nearly a second. Imagine if you were reading a book, and words began to be seen before you read them.

There are as many technical rules to caption writing as grammatical ones. Every caption is data, and data takes time to load.

Not how it works, is it? But in captioning, it’s mathematical. When my work is done, a tech guy takes my floppy disk to that tech-packed room down the hall and encodes the text file, the literal .txt, onto a physical space on edge of the magnetic Beta-Max tape, which is taken up 95% by image and audio data. He’ll funnel it, triggered by timecodes, through that patchwork of cables I mentioned footnote-arily. As if in some Orwellian fantasia, my slavish words will flutter across the impersonal monitors. Then tech guy will send it out, job done, and Burbank will be blanketed by our company’s deliveries.

So though a 22-minute show takes hours to caption, and though my ears are hot when I remove my headphones for a break, my work is a handful of kilobits, encoded in ASCII — which is a language agreed to by a consortium to be an OK way to capture English in the lingua that’s the most franca of all: binary. So many on-screen dramatic worlds shriveled down to alpha-numerics.

But this digital load-bearing has its limits. Regardless what is said in any show, the CW cannot overload the viewer, who is after all, a reader. Adults shows must cap at 255 wpm max, children’s programming much less at 160.

But this digital load-bearing has its limits. Regardless what is said in any show, the CW cannot overload the viewer, who is after all, a reader.

I learn to optimize language. Drop the interjections. Keep the meaning. But clip the clutter. It’s an art in itself.

For six months, it’s night shift, swigging coffee, ass in the chair, a dark office in the evening, just desk lamps, and cigarette breaks outside with Kathy and Mel, onto the cold concrete of the former warehouse dock. Shows in, shows out, just like goods that were once dropped here on pallets, jacked and stacked. In this business, words are inventory, but they are weightless. You can’t put them on any dockside scale. So how do you toss them to market — to the fresh-keeping ice?

2017

Where I live now, there’s a company making captions. I’ve heard about them, and I’ve seen their employments ads. When they’ve been hiring, I have not applied.

Also where I live now, I mingle in insular circles, and more than once I’ve chatted with a guy who has done this work as well. The same guy. The first time the subject came up, questions tingled on the tip of my tongue. “Did you do real-time captioning or off-line? What software did you use? Who were your clients?” But before I could pursue any of these mundanities, he launched into stories of captioning softcore for Cinemax, which everybody knows goes by the moniker “Skinemax.” As if the only question on party-goer’s minds is, Was there sex involved in this occupation?

Oh, man, can you imagine.

Shut up, you. I just nod.

Well, here’s the story. Cover the children’s ears. Shut the door if you must. We have to go back to 2001 again.

2001

I’m in training mode for months and months. You misheard this line. There was a timing problem here. The narrator was off-screen here, and you should have done this. Missing or botched antecedents: at, it, as. Damn our/out invisible typos. Every few weeks, my manager, Kendra, sits down with a job I’ve done, and we review the show, watching the captions display, watching the file scroll through as it loads. We pause, we fix, we learn. My ego is hammered. I was in advanced reading groups as a kid! My father was English teacher! I have an MFA!

No one cares here about your literary ambitions or connections to Booker-shortlisted authors or that Alasdair Gray, Scotland’s Kurt Vonnegut, gave your creative thesis a Pass. The company you keep now is Xena, Warrior Princess; The Monkees; Ward Cleaver, and countless medieval swordsmen in beaver pelts whose swords go [schwing!] when drawn from leather scabbards. Leather! Oy, the fakery! How many punches faked? Let me count the ways. You’re not even as smart as the local televangelist with his shining blasphemous prosperity gospel. You’re not as literate as the snakeoil medium receiving messages from (with gravitas) “the other side.” Day after day, you come in, pick up your VHS from the cubby, remove the job sheet rubber banded around it and the floppy disk premade with the label. You watch, you transcribe, typing faster and faster, pausing and resuming with the foot pedal when that hardware is attached. You time, you rewind, you pause, go forward. Time stamp, time stamp, time stamp.

No one cares here about your literary ambitions or connections to Booker-shortlisted authors or that Alasdair Gray, Scotland’s Kurt Vonnegut, gave your creative thesis a Pass.

Didn’t I — yes? — as a youth spend two weeks one summer doing a typing class at the high school, typing a s d f when little a’s s’s d’s and f’s floated by on the screen? Didn’t my Shakespeare-teaching dad encourage me to play with his typewriter as a kid, rather than stare another hour at what he called “The Boob Tube”? Yet how is it I never really learned to type until now?

Damn you, television!

As for that predictable party anecdote: So, yes, one day my boss saddles up at my station for a review, and it’s the 60-minute Skinemax show I captioned over the course of two blush-inducing days. Salacious women flutter on my screen, flashing, strutting. When you pause a VHS tape, its frame can stutter, just vibrate sometimes; and these shows take place in a steamy L.A. world where women are left alone with criminal frequency, and they need to arch their backs on the divan and run their hands…and they need a cold shower with open drapes…and they need the night club restroom stall…

Not that the dialogue is complex, but Kendra cares inordinately about the correctness of these captions! As if the hearing-impaired, or anyone, is paying attention. As if this show is being watched on mute in a Jiffy Lube or podiatrist’s waiting room. She takes issue with the music descriptor. We change it to

I thought I had become a man of letters. And yet the evidence indicates otherwise.

2001 Still

In this condition, after 8 hours at the workstation, I bike home after midnight in the quiet, darkened city, from downtown to South Minneapolis. I am among the ranks of the nightowls, the dog-walkers, the partiers, the nurses, the security guards. At home, I’m too wired to sleep. I’m up until 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning. This is my time off, to pursue my personal interests, but I can’t type! I’ve been typing all day. And I can’t read! I’ve been reading all day too. I sprawl on the couch watching TV.

This is my time off, to pursue my personal interests, but I can’t type! I’ve been typing all day. And I can’t read! I’ve been reading all day too.

My girlfriend, who works normal hours, is in bed. We have a small apartment, so I lower the volume and — “the ironing is delicious,” quoth Bart Simpson — I put on the captions. Sometimes I see my own work. Captioners get to put their names in the funding credit — the very last caption of any show.

It runs for 3 seconds and often doesn’t load, because the station cuts to commercial too soon.

It doesn’t load.

I…don’t load. In this medium.

I wonder how my grad school colleagues are doing, with their Booker Prize short lists and their publishing contracts?

The Graduate

Dustin Hoffmann’s 1967 Benjamin Braddock was a graduate and a Ben. At last, I am both. I graduate. I’ve got all the conventions down. My word counts are right, my captions load properly, and my grammar is finally up to speed, though there’s no fixing the scattershot, stop-and-start way that people speak. I’m on day shift. I’ve been doing this six months. I have watched hundreds of TV shows.

My word counts are right, my captions load properly, and my grammar is finally up to speed, though there’s no fixing the scattershot, stop-and-start way that people speak.

Now I can anticipate a cut, and use replaceable short codes for “you know” and “definitely.” The 7 key is my wildcard, because it’s in the center. Find/Replace d7 >> definitely. I save hours. I know what your average VH1 Behind the Music host will say before she says it. I know when Vlad says he must go, to start typing [horse galloping]. I can capture Wolfgang Puck’s accented, fragmentary English within the limits of our house style. (“We gonna” in this instance, is acceptable.)

There’s an employee incentive program now. Every program type is given a target completion time. E.g., a 22-min sitcom: 3.5 hours to produce the captions, end to end. An hour-long documentary: 6.5 hours. A 90-minute feature film: 8 hours. Beat the time, and I get paid dollars per quarter hour I’ve shaved off. The company has grown; we lease more space in the building. All the major networks are clients now: the broadcast networks, additional cable networks, we have Spanish-language captioners doing Telemundo and Univision. And we’ve transitioned to digital: no more FedEx’d BetaMax tapes, but .mpgs and .avis streamed down networks. The VCRs are taken out of our workstations, and the PCs upgraded (Win NT!). But the new software still uses the function keys for video playback commands. Word counts are calculated on the fly. The software can auto-find cuts and auto-place a caption on a cut. Brilliant!

We can crank out even more.

I regularly bank bonus bucks on this incentive program. When I work from home, my girlfriend is disturbed by the speed of my typing, the sound of its rapid-fire hammering. Yet the novel I’ve started in grad school sits, gathering digital dust.

Am I a writer anymore?

2002

After two years of doing this, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, headphones on, eyes on the screen, now the words themselves have vanished somewhat. There are only dramatic tropes.

There’s false pressure to finish remo’s, find clues, solves puzzles, balance budgets. There’s phony setups, like guests just popping by.

Ted just happens to be sales rep from a manufacturer of high-density laminated stone shingles.

There’s hokey plots and inexplicable British accents in ancient Rome, ancient Mesopotamia, even ancient Egypt.

There are more car explosions than can be counted.

There’s vamped up intrigue.

Well, we already know from the tease at the top, and the bumpers, that they lay some bones out on a table later.

Terminally, clocks are running down. Will they run out of time and money? Of course not! They never run out of time or money. If they did, there’d be a sad ending and viewers wouldn’t feel bolstered to go out and spend money with your sponsors.

And, increasingly, there’s gratuitous product placement.

One of the more egregious dramatic sureties is the wordless response. You can set your watch by it. It happens at the end of the scene — and every seasoned captioner has an intuitive feel for the length and scope of a segment, whether it’s reality, game show, sitcom, informational or anything. Many a time I have transcribed, transcribed, transcribed, paused, played, transcribed, transcribed, transcribed, and based on the weight of a line, gone straight to fast-forward, and indeed, as guessed, hit the black bumper.

The line could be anything. It might be:

Or:

Or:

Then there is the pensive reaction shot, which takes no caption.

Closed captioning, a.k.a. CC. Through no fault of this service — which is valuable to many — CC comes to mean, to me:

Cookie Cutter.

Can’t Comprehend.

Clouded Creativity.

Possibly the Last Subhead

I put in three years before moving on to a job in publishing. Three years of 40-hour weeks, sometimes more. That’s 6,200 hours of TV watching. More than is advisable, I’m sure. My dramatic sensibility was jaded. What had become of my prose style? I think at this time there wasn’t such a thing, despite the training I received in grad school and was still paying for. And then once I was done Caption Writing, I was off TV for good.

Fast-forward out of myth and biblical times, right over The Enlightenment, to these here present (looking around) still rather Biblical-seeming times, and now here’s the scene at many a café gab session, dinner party, or lunch with colleagues.

Colleague/Friend: “Have you seen Breaking Bad?”

Me, wincingly, because the conversation never ends well: “No.”

I don’t use the phrase “I don’t watch TV anymore” anymore. A few years out of my captioning job, I re-activated my bookish life. I got a job as an editor on dayshift, back in the world of black-on-white, plain prose for paper publications, feeling sane, etc., I did watch all seasons of Lost over the course of a year, just after the final season concluded. Watched every one while standing on an elliptical machine in a basement. The same with The Wire. Enjoyed them both, as silly as Lost often was.

Since then, it’s: tennis matches (torrent’d), and the occasional film with my eternal love Theresa. We both, in fact, do quite well in a TV-minimal world. This does not make us superior, it just makes us like-minded. When I need an uproarious laugh, I watch old episodes of Mr. Show. (A footnote to TV history is that Odenkirk/Cross=comic genius.)

And meanwhile, here in the Dark Ages, a recent trip to “Barnes Ampersand Noble,” as I call it, revealed an escapist literature section and a featured magazine that contained nothing but essays on TV. At checkout, The New Yorker magazine’s “The Television Issue.”

There you have the titular phrase — and no, it offers no sight of breasts.

Also meanwhile, online I observe the general abandonment of punctuational norms even on mainstream sites, an abandonment made in seeming earnest — like people in the biz don’t intend to return to the tiresome business of clear expression. I would contend that mine is not a “get off my lawn” stance either; it’s much sadder than that; and scarier when you consider the apparent trickle-up effect from culture into the electorate.

The language is degenerating. But I’m not saying TV has single-handedly eroded literacy. Maybe TV to language…

Yes, thank you. Maybe it’s a bit like the role of cow farts in global warming: It may not be doing the most damage, but it doesn’t help.

Maybe it’s a bit like the role of cow farts in global warming: It may not be doing the most damage, but it doesn’t help.

But it doesn’t matter. Socially, if you say you don’t watch TV, it sounds like a policy. It sounds like you’re being — as I regret to say they put it now — “judgy.”

Have I been diplomatic in my every response? No.

Once, a few months ago, someone started the question, “Did you see — “

And I jumped in with a too-hasty, “No.”

In my defense, I knew what the answer was going to be. Because I have not seen: Parks and Rec, The Office, Breaking Bad, Community, Battlestar Gallacita, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Game of Throne, Veep, Girls. And many others. All of them.

But there’s sometimes no way to deliver this explanation that isn’t divisive. That’s no conclusion at all, as you can see. But my only point in all this was precisely to say that not everything is black and white. Or white on black. With some things, you have to read between the lines. Something we’re less and less and less and less and less and less and less and less and less.

Unpause. Bang on keyboard. Mash with fists.

0

About the Author

More Like This

How Kurt Vonnegut Predicted the Automation Crisis

67 years ago, "Player Piano" warned us that big tech was coming for our jobs

Aug 14 - Arvind Dilawar

Need Writing Inspiration? Follow These Twitter Bots

Finally, looking at Twitter when you have writer's block will actually DO something

Jul 26 - Electric Literature

Thank You for Calling the Writer Envy Helpline

If a writer you know on Twitter has written an entire book in the time it’s taken you to call this number, press 4

Jul 19 - Julie Vick