In this morning's New York Times there is an article by Brian Stelter about an episode of "Switched at Birth" that was broadcast entirely in sign. Those who did not know ASL followed along with captions. "Teaching Viewers to Hear the TV With Eyes Only."
I read the article with a mix of irritation and amusement. As a person with hearing loss, I always watch TV with captions. My entire family tolerates them, though they do turn the captions off if I'm not in the room. When my son was about 17 he wanted me to watch The Wire with him. My hearing wasn't as bad then as it is now, but the dialogue in the Wire is overlapping, a lof of it is in the form of asides or mumbles, street dialect or heavily accented speech. I really couldn't follow it. I wanted to share the show with my son -- it's a rare event when a 17 year old boy asks his mom to share a cultural event, and one to be treasured -- but I also didn't want to jeopardize the good shared feeling between us by suggesting captions. I did anyway, and we both realized that we heard and saw the show in an entirely different way because we could understand every word.
Since then, the captions are more or less permanently on my TV. Without them, I can hear the dialogue but I cant really understand it. The captions are a kind of secondary support. If I see the written word I'm more likey to understand the spoken one. It feels pretty effortless to me.
But to today's multi tasking younger generation, as Stelter pointed out, watching TV is usually accompanied by texting or reading something on your IPad. "Every single viewer -- deaf or hearing -- was forced to put away their phones and IPads and anything else in this ADD world we all live in and focus," said Lizzy Weiss, the creator of the series. "That made you get into it more. It drew you in."
I'm sure Weiss is correct in that, but I do wonder at the supposed novelty of it all. Watching a TV episode in ASL is no different from going to a foreign movie and reading captions. Have TV viewers become so word phobic that they can only enjoy TV orally? Do they never watch something in a foreign language?
In New York City, the Theater Development Fund offers captioned performances for the deaf and hard of hearing. It's usually just one performance in a long running show (though some shows, like Wicked, provide hearing access at every show). Those who have bought tickets set aside for the hearing impaired sit in a special section of the theater, usually the first 15 rows on one or the other side of the orchestra. The captions are displayed on a small LED screen, about the size of a big laptop screen.
It's not optimal for the audience member -- You have to swing your eyes from the caption screen to the actors and back again. But it's done this way, I think, to spare other members of the audience from the distraction of the screen. I have heard audience members complain about the captioning -- as if it somehow diminished their enjoyment of the performance. For heavens sake, I want to say, just keep your eyes on the stage. Let the rest of us enjoy the show in the only way we can.
Captioning in movie theaters is also a big issue for those with hearing loss, which I'll discuss in another post.
But meanwhile, welcome to our world, viewers of "Switched at Birth." The episode did well in the ratings, so clearly the captions were not offputting to devoted followers of the show. I've never seen it, I have to admit, but I'll make a point of it now. Meanwhile shows like "Downton Abbey" and "Treme" -- with complex dialogues and actors with accents -- might be more appreciated even by the hearing if they used captions. Every word counts. You don't want to miss one of them.
Captioning live television, like news broadcasts or award shows, is another matter entirely, and I'll write about that at a later point.