From The Boston Globe — July 23, 2015

wgbh-captioningOnly a few people can claim a role in news and entertainment programs as varied as “The Daily Show,” “Orange is the New Black,” “The Price is Right,” and the “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.”

But Tim Alves and his team do all that and more at WGBH in Brighton. Alves is a captions operations supervisor with the public broadcaster’s Media Access Group, leading a small team that spells out the dialogue and sounds of about 14,000 hours of television, movies, and online video each year.

“This is essentially live, high-pressure copy editing,” said Alves, who worked for a New Hampshire newspaper and a Los Angeles television station before joining the captions team in 2006. “You’re working on extremely tight deadlines, and that deadline is right now.”

Alves’s Boston staff and a national network of stenographers type thousands of words daily for networks, movie studios, and such online operations as Netflix. Their captions serve the roughly 38 million adults who have some trouble hearing and millions more who read them on televisions in airports and other noisy public places.

For live broadcasts, only a stenographer using a special keyboard can keep up with speakers. If necessary, WGBH can farm out the task to a network of on-call freelancers whose feeds are transmitted to Boston and synchronized with the broadcast.

“In the morning, I come in and I’ll do offline work,” Alves said. “We have scripts and video, and we’ll marry the script to video.” Later, he may switch to a program like “The Price Is Right,” which is beamed to WGBH at 11 a.m. — the same time it’s aired to many viewers.

Alves’s team has a broad portfolio. It captions Public Broadcasting System programs such as “Downton Abbey” and “Nova.” Other networks pay for the services of the WGBH stenographers, who write captions for such shows as “NCIS.”

The group also captions live events, including the Grammys. Every night, a stenographer plugs into a feed of CBS News to write live captions. A WGBH staffer will quickly “butler” the stenographer’s output, cleaning up any mistakes before the program is made available online.

“The technical term we use to describe those employees are steno-captioners. They’re extremely skilled, and they’re very focused,” said Alves. Often, he said, captioners will get into such a groove that they won’t remember what was said just seconds earlier.

4 Comments

  1. Carole Osterer on February 20, 2021 at 1:57 pm

    It was exciting to get the live captioned news on the air! We worked right up till airtime to get it right and sometimes the clunky first-generation computer let us down and we didn’t get it right. But the tape room and control room engineers were always there for us, solving problems and inventing solutions. Thank you Gordon Mehlman and all the others I remember so well! Carole

  2. Gordon Mehlman on February 19, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    Anybody that watches TV programs on CBS will notice that many of those shows have a WGBH Media Access Group credit for the captions at the end of the program.

    Here is a little information about one of the earliest project of the Caption Center.

    It should be noted that at that time the closed captions of today had not even been developed. Only what were then known as open captions were available for broadcast.

    At that time the ABC network video and audio feed for Boston’s WCVB-TV and Maine’s WMTW-TV was delivered by Telco to the 52nd floor penthouse equipment room of the Prudential Tower and then delivered via microwave to those two stations.

    Engineers from the WGBH maintenance department were assigned to install a permanent Microwave Associates 2ghz microwave link between that equipment room and the roof of the Prudential building to the penthouse microwave room at 125 Western Avenue. This microwave’s purpose was to send a feed of that ABC network to WGBH.

    The video and audio feeds from that microwave receiver were then routed to the WGBH tape room. The video tape operators recorded the 6:30 and 7:00 ABC Evening News video and audio feed every evening.

    Between the time that the feed was recorded and 11:00PM the caption center staff transcribed the audio portion of the newscast and recorded that information on a pair of Caelus disc drives.

    At exactly 11:00 PM every evening a full control room crew in Studio C played back the pre-recorded ABC evening news program and in real time during the playback added the open captions to the program.

    The transcribed information to develop the captions was routed from the Caelus disc drives into a Vidifont Mark 3 character generator and that video and audio with open caption information was broadcast on WGBX Channel 44 as what was probably the first ever captioned newscat for the hearing impaired.

    Gordon Mehlman

    • Jay Collier on February 19, 2021 at 12:36 pm

      Thank you for sharing that memory, Gordon.

      I remember working as switcher for that live captioned ABC news broadcast at 11 p.m. for several years in the ’80s. It was a really great group of people and it felt like an important assignment.

      Sometimes, looking back, pioneering work may seem simple, but look at the way it grew into a movement that has helped millions of people enjoy television programming ever since.

    • Jeff Hutchins on February 19, 2021 at 3:58 pm

      What a great recounting, Gordon. Thanks for writing it.

      I was there as one of the first three employees of The Caption Center. The first broadcast of “The Captioned ABC News” occurred on December 3, 1973. In a matter of weeks, it was being shared via PBS with stations across the country as the first same-day news available to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Imagine that… until WGBH made it happen, a deaf person had to wait for the next day’s newspaper to know what was happening in the world. Radio and TV were useless to them.

      This historic effort involved almost every department of WGBH from 1973 until 1983. Because we replaced the six minutes of commercial time with other news and information targeting the Deaf Community, we used the talents of the Art Department (especially Gene Mackles), the entire studio and engineering crew, and many others. I was proud to be a part of that endeavor, which was initiated by the visionary Phil Collyer.

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