Closed Caption Blog

How Canada Ensures Access to Quality Closed Captioning

by Kira Yager

Accessibility in Today’s World 

The world of accessibility and inclusivity is constantly growing, evolving and improving over time. For example, in recent years, globally, the fashion industry’s clothing brands have been ensuring their online shopping websites are more accessible. One way they do this is by including alternative text, which describes the content of images, graphs and charts, giving the blind or visually impaired the ability to learn more about the item they’re interested in buying.

American toy company Mattel’s line of Barbie dolls have become increasingly diverse in recent years, satiating society’s appetite for increased representation of groups not typically included in arenas such as social media or mainstream film and television. As of June 2022, Barbie’s new set of dolls includes the brand’s first-ever Barbie with hearing aids, and a Ken doll with the skin condition vitiligo. And for the conservationist-minded, there is even a Jane Goodall Barbie.   

Of course, we can’t discuss accessibility without mentioning the internet. In the big wide world of the internet, here in Canada’s province of Ontario, the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act), a statute enacted in 2005 by the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, now requires all public websites to meet a number of accessibility guidelines. (Guidelines are taken from the WCAG 2.0, i.e. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, an internationally accepted standard for web accessibility). 

Who Regulates Closed Captioning? 

So as we enjoy watching Canada, and the rest of the world, continue to wake up and embrace the importance of diversity, inclusivity and accessibility, we can note that there is one area of accessibility Canada’s been keeping a close eye on for quite some time. And that’s ensuring all Canadians have access to quality closed captioning. 

In a previous CCS blog, “The History of Closed Captioning”, we explored the birth of closed captioning. We discovered where it came from, and how it evolved into the essential accessibility tool it is today. We’re now about to take it one step further by exploring how closed captioning is regulated. You’ll learn just how important it is, because without its accuracy in check, the captions themselves may not be able to get the message across as it was intended. 

Anyone who relies on closed captioning will agree it’s a wonderful invention, and for the most part, available to everyone. Anyone who owns a television has the option of turning on the closed captioning feature and seeing in written form what is being said or heard in the program. 

It is thanks to the CRTC that Canadians have access to closed captioning. The CRTC, which stands for the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, is a division of the Canadian government. 

The CRTC was created in 1976 when it took over responsibility for regulating telecommunication carriers. (Prior to 1976, it was known as the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, which was established in 1968 by the Parliament of Canada to replace the Board of Broadcast Governors.)

While closed captioning on broadcast television was introduced in the 1970s, and slowly evolved over time, the CRTC began actively regulating closed captioning in the 1990s, shortly after it became mandatory for televisions to come equipped with built-in decoder circuitry to display closed captions. They did this by requiring broadcasters to provide it as an essential service. 

Because the Canadian Broadcasting Act, which received a major reform in 1991 by the Parliament of Canada, states that the CRTC is the broadcasting regulator and that the CRTC must “ensure the availability and accessibility of Canadian music and stories to all Canadians”, eventually, the CRTC, in 2007, issued a public notice requiring English and French language broadcasters to caption 100 percent of their programs over the broadcast day. 

The CRTC explains on its website that its mandate is to work to ensure Canadians “have access to a world-class communication system that promotes innovation and enriches their lives”. It works to “remove barriers and promote the accessibility of telecommunications and broadcasting services in Canada”, and “ensure that Canadians with disabilities have equitable opportunities to use, enjoy and benefit from these services”. 

How the CRTC Regulates Closed Captioning

Today, the CRTC plays a big part in ensuring closed captioning is not only available, but accurate. Knowing that closed captioning is fully accessible to those watching TV, and that the CRTC mandates broadcasters to provide captioning for all daily broadcasts, is certainly progressive and to be applauded. However, let’s not forget that in order for it to work, the captions must be an accurate representation of what is being said and heard. Because the CRTC understands that Deaf and hard-of-hearing people must be given access to consume media in a way that their experience is the same experience as the majority, the entity has implemented numerous methods in order to ensure accuracy in closed captioning.

Regarding broadcasting standards that must be in place in terms of providing quality closed captioning on broadcast television, the CRTC website further explains that “CRTC standards also regulate the accuracy of closed captioning, which is the level of exactness between captions and the audio content of a program. For pre-recorded programming, accuracy includes correct spelling. For pre-recorded programs, broadcasters must target a captioning accuracy rate of 100%. For live programming, French-language captioning must target an accuracy rate of 85%. For English-language, live captioning, broadcasters must reach an accuracy rate of at least 98, as measured by the method described in the Canadian NER Evaluation Guidelines.”

It is clearly understood that it’s imperative that the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities receive accurate closed captioning on broadcast television, and the NER method (or model) allows broadcasters and the CRTC to measure accuracy. NER stands for Number (i.e. total number of words), Edition error, and Recognition error. This method of evaluating the accuracy of the the live closed captioning compares the verbatim transcript from a program to the captioned transcript, then determines the discrepancies between both using a point system. 

Additionally, those who conduct the evaluations must be trained and certified NER evaluators. The evaluators must always keep in mind that without a method of measuring accuracy, members of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities would run the risk of missing out on important information, so it is their job to evaluate critically using the guidelines set forth by the NER method. These guidelines include scoring grammar and punctuation errors, and measuring whether or not a paraphrased sentence in the captions contains the same meaning as the full sentence from the original program. 

How Accurate are Closed Captions?

What may not be apparent to most people, whether they watch television with closed captions on or not, is that captioning in real-time and producing 100% accurate closed captions is, in reality, very challenging. In order to do so, a trained captioner (who typically must train for several years before receiving accreditation), using a specialized stenography machine, must be able to type at the speed of approximately 150 words per minute. On average, 150 words per minute is the speed at which a typical human speaks. When we think about how most people who are considered “fast typers” type between 60 to 80 words per minute, 150 seems perhaps unattainable. 

Using a specialized machine, known as a steno machine, however, allows the captioner to type out syllables instead of one letter at a time, as is done using a conventional keyboard, and does allow the stenographer to write words very quickly.  

A steno machine has far fewer keys than a conventional alphanumeric keyboard. Using a single hand motion, multiple keys are pressed, spelling out whole syllables, words, and phrases. This system makes real-time transcription practical for court reporting and live closed captioning. Because the keyboard does not contain all the letters of the English alphabet, letter combinations are substituted for the missing letters.

Although the steno machine allows for near-perfect accuracy, due to the challenges of captioning a live broadcast, a real-time stenographer who is accredited and is certified to work as a closed captioner, cannot always produce captions at 100% accuracy. This is because often, when there are multiple speakers who speak over each other, individual words become difficult to decipher. Additionally, it does happen on a regular basis that speakers’ rate of speech sometimes goes too quickly, even for the most experienced closed captioner, and a few errors are to be expected. 

Taking this into consideration, the CRTC mandates an NER-measured accuracy rate of 98 for real-time, live broadcasts. So, in effect, the resulting closed captions must be very close to verbatim, but, as just highlighted, it is understood that errors will sometimes occur. Therefore, as part of their mandate, the CRTC says that broadcasters must, on a regular basis, evaluate the accuracy of the closed captioning being produced for them. 

In their broadcasting regulatory policy, the CRTC states that, “the Commission recognizes the importance of closed captioning to Canadians who are Deaf or hard of hearing. For individuals who rely on captioning, poorly captioned programming is almost equivalent to uncaptioned programming: when captioning cannot be comprehended, the programming it accompanies becomes inaccessible. Recognition of the importance of closed captioning is what led to the adoption of quality standards. As part of the condition for their licenses, the CRTC requires broadcasters to put in place a monitoring system to ensure that closed captioning is included in the broadcast signal and that captioning reaches the viewer in its original form”.

Generally, broadcasters must regularly evaluate and report back to the CRTC with their results, and as of 2015, the CRTC began expecting broadcasters who place content online to also begin providing and measuring closed captioning of online content and programming. 

So the next time you are watching closed captioning in Canada, you’ll watch with the knowledge that not only is it being provided to Canadians under strict regulations, but that its accuracy is also being closely monitored by the CRTC, and that is how Canada ensures Canadians have access to quality closed captioning.