March 3, 2006 at 10:00 AM ET
Like millions of people in America last September, Sonny Wasilowski was riveted by the real-life drama of JetBlue Flight 292. The plane's landing gear was stuck, and as pilots prepared for an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport, television stations trained their cameras on the potentially doomed flight.
But as the plane circled LAX to burn off fuel, Wasiloski had no idea what was happening. All he saw was the same picture of an airplane floating against the darkening night sky. Like many watchers, Wasiloski had tuned into the unfolding drama at work and was watching news video coverage on his computer, over the Internet. But the video he watched online was essentially useless to him.
Wasilowski is deaf.
As TV news anchors tracked the plane's every move on Dec. 10, closed captioning information let deaf viewers at home know what was happening. But there were no captions on any of the online video news services Wasilowski watched. With only the rarest of exceptions, captions never follow video online.
That made video of the JetBlue plane -– and nearly all Internet videos -- useless to Wasilowski and millions of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. As Flight 210 hit the runway in a shower of sparks and burning rubber, Wasilowski could only guess what was really happening.
"Without captions, I can only understand so much," says Wasilowski.
There are 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States, according to the National Association of the Deaf. There are virtually no Internet videos with closed captioning information. The top online news video providers -- including MSNBC.com and CNN.com -- currently don't provide captions.
Given the explosive increase in online video viewing during the past 24 months, the situation has become dire, says Jamie Berke, a deaf advocate and the About.com Internet guide for the deaf community.
"The deaf and hard of hearing community is afraid of being left out of this next generation of media," she said in an e-mail to MSNBC.com. “A whole new world of internet media is rapidly developing, and deaf and hard of hearing people are being left out. It is like when television first began.”
No time to enjoy victory on TV captions
The irony for the deaf community is this: Only recently was it able to claim victory in its decades-long battle to require closed captions on over-the-air television broadcasts. While many stations have included the real-time text captions for years, FCC regulations requiring captions on TV were phased in -- and only this January became compulsory for all English broadcasts.
The importance of accessible media can hardly be overstated. In fact, there are situations where lack of captions on news and information video can create a life-or-death crisis.
In July 2004, Connie Anderson, a deaf employee in Nevada’s state Medicaid office, was watching news coverage of the Carson City, Nev., wildfires from her home. She knew she was close to the southern portion of the fire. At one point, the channel she was watching flashed up the message: “Mandatory Evacuation Areas” on the screen. But the areas were described by the anchors and not displayed -- and the program was not captioned.
"It was impossible for me to know which areas were being evacuated," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "What a horrible time this was for me. I’m a competent, educated, professional woman –- and felt completely helpless and cut off from the flow of information that was readily available to others."
That’s why the lack of captions on Internet news services is the most frequent complaint in the deaf community, Berke says. Both CNN.com and MSNBC.com officials said they were investigating the technology required to add captions.
“The possibility of closed captioning for video is currently being evaluated by MSNBC.com's technology team,” said MSNBC.com’s Anne Keegan.
CNN.com’s Jennifer Martin said the Web site is hoping for improved technologies before jumping into online captioning.
“We have been actively looking into closed captioning for our video resources," Martin said. "We have not yet made an investment, and before we do would like to see closed captioning technologies more robust for online, live video.”
Campaign under way
In recent months, the deaf community online has begun a vocal campaign to insist on captioning. Berke now runs an advocacy Web site called Captions.org. Wasilowski, a deaf activist, hosts a blog on the topic. And the student newspaper at Gallaudet University, which caters to hard-of-hearing and deaf students, recently editorialized on the topic.
At first blush, it might seem the marriage of interactive text and video is perfect for the online experience. Video transcripts are seen as an essential element of one of the Internet's next great things, searchable video archives. Google, among others, is said to be working on such a tool.
Several software packages have also been designed to include captions in the leading video players, including Microsoft's Media Player (Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange), RealNetworks’ RealPlayer (RealText) and Apple’s QuickTime (Text Track). (Microsoft is a partner with NBC Universal in MSNBC.com)
Meanwhile, online video captions would benefit others outside the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Those who wanted to watch videos in places where sound was not permitted -- perhaps in an office -- would find captions useful. So would those who speak English as a second language.
And with television content that's simply repurposed online, presumably all of it already has been transcribed for broadcast. Taking those already-existing captions and putting them online sounds easy enough.
But it's not. For one, there is a debate about who owns the caption text prepared for broadcast, says Stephen Brand, who runs a Web captioning company named Speche Communications. And sites like MSNBC.com don't simply have a single stream of video to worry about, as a television station does. At any given time, users can watch thousands of videos, many coming from multiple sources. Preparing and maintaining captions for all of them is a serious technological hurdle.
"The pieces on the Web are cut up in so many ways" for broadcasters that publish online, said Jennifer G. Sagalyn, director of partnerships at the WGBH/National Center for Accessible Media. "It's not a mirror of what's broadcast."
There's also the problem of timing. While vastly improved, streaming video online is still a bit unpredictable. Required buffer times vary wildly, and there are still occasional fits and starts. If caption text is sent separately, timing it with unpredictable video could be tricky.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle is the speed at which video technology has suddenly been adopted by Internet users. Even five years ago, online video was still a luxury for at-work users with understanding bosses and the lucky few with reliable high-bandwidth connections. But last year, broadband users began to outnumber dial-up users, and video usage has followed suit. Apple's iPod video player, and video sharing sites like YouTube, have also helped push a surge in video -- one that has in some ways outpaced Web captioning technology.
"We know the access piece wasn't exactly hatched yet," said Mary Watkins, outreach director at WGBH. "There aren't any bad guys here."
‘We will get only crumbs’
Federal laws requiring accessibility haven't been able to keep up, either. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is silent on the issue of closed captions for Internet video.
Federal law does require government agencies -- or any agency that's supported by federal money -- to provide text alternatives any time audio and visual content is created for meetings such as legislative sessions. But private firms like Web media companies are not bound by such rules.
Given the headaches involved, many believe captioning won't happen until it’s required by federal regulators. And therein lies another hurdle. While the Federal Communications Commission has clear authority to regulate television broadcasts, and the ability to pull the license of any station that doesn't comply with its rules, there is no such similar regulatory body that can force Internet companies to add captions.
“Our only hope is that Congress updates the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to make captioning on the Internet mandatory, too,” Berke said. “If we are forced to rely on voluntary (participation) we will get only crumbs.”
Others say there is some hope in emerging technologies. Several companies are hard at work making tools to ease the migration of captions from television to the Internet. Boston's WGBH, which was instrumental in the creation of TV caption technology during the 1970s, has created a Web video software tool called CaptionKeeper. It grabs the text captions broadcast on television's so-called "Line 21" and digitally attaches them to streaming video for Webcasts. Other tools make it easier to marry after-the-fact transcripts -- which many television shows independently produce -- and video via timestamps. For live streaming video situations, like the JetBlue crash landing, Brand's Speche Communications provides tools that make it easy for typists sitting anywhere in the world to create captions for videos on-the-fly. Other tools, such as IBM’s CaptionMeNow, perform instant speech-to-text translations to provide captions.
Most promising of all, perhaps, will be the demand from all consumers to search for videos using keywords. Creation of such next-generation search wizardry will require text transcriptions of videos; closed captions should be able to go along for the ride. Already, video search engines are surging in popularity, with a 500 percent jump in visitors from last February to this February, according to LeeAnn Prescott, a research analyst at Hitwise USA Inc.
Watkins is hopeful that new video search engines will drive the push toward more accessible online video.
But for all that optimism, right now, America's 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing residents are left behind in the fastest-growing segment of the world's most powerful communication tool. For people like Darcy Cooper, a deaf Webmaster at Tyler Technologies in Renton, Wash., Internet video might as well not exist.
"As far as online videos ... I would not even watch unless captioning were provided,” she says. “Who would waste time watching something without being able to hear what they are saying?"
For those interested in finding the few videos that are captioned online, a search tool can be found at Harkle.com.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the JetBlue flight number and destination.