Video podcast maker adds subtitles to attract deaf subscribers

I recently had an email from Don McAllister who runs an online video podcast called ScreenCastsOnline. Don makes weekly video tutorials about Apple products, and he’s just started adding subtitles to them. It’s pretty rare to hear about online videos having subtitles added to them so I’m giving Don a plug to encourage more people to do the same.

Don makes his living producing a 30 minute video tutorial each week demonstrating and explaining how people can use and get the most out of their Mac computers, iPads and iPhones. His subscribers get the new weekly show pushed to them automatically each week via iTunes.

Don wrote a post about including subtitles here: http://themacscreencastguy.squarespace.com/blog/2011/9/2/new-accessibility-feature-for-screencastsonline.html

To see how it looks, here’s an example page: http://www.screencastsonline.com/tutorials_files/SCO0313-timeline3d.php

I asked Don a few questions about his work.

 What are your video podcasts about, and how long have you been making them?

I’ve been creating the videos since 2005, initially as a hobby but I was one of the first podcasters to go full time back in 2006, and I’ve been creating the weekly tutorials ever since then. As well as creating the weekly videos, I also appear on a number of very popular US and UK Mac podcasts and have carved out a bit of a position as a Mac pundit. I’m also fortunate enough to travel over to the US a couple of times a year as a speaker or participant in a number of Mac conferences. I also do the occasional Mac based cruise (!) as a speaker and have cruised round the Med, China, South Korea, Japan and just this year South America and the Falklands. We’re off to Australia next year.

Who are the podcasts aimed at?

Basically anyone who uses an Apple Mac or is considering switching the the Apple Mac. I also cover some iPhone and iPad related topics and I’m planning on increasing these in the near future. They are aimed at a wide skill range, from complete newbies to experienced Mac users. The Apple ecosystem is changing so rapidly everybody can keep up to date with the latest developments and the latest and greatest hardware and software. I cover Apple software, including the operating system as well as their flagship software such as iLife, iWork, Aperture, etc. I also cover the best in the ever increasing library of third party software too.

What made you start subtitling your videos?

It just seems a natural progression of the service. I hope the subtitles will help viewers with hearing difficulties but also they will help non-native english speaking viewers too. ScreenCastsOnline is distributed throughout the globe and I have viewers all over the world!  They may form the basis for multi language subtitles in the future, but for now, I’m sticking with just the English subtitles.

How do you add the subtitles?

It’s a manual process.

* Firstly I send the audio of the video off to get transcribed.
* The service I use can process the audio and return the text transcript within 24 hours.
* Once I have the text transcript, I do some checking and summarising on the text file.
* Then I load it into an application (MovieCaptioner) that allows you to insert the timecode into the text file whilst you are watching the video. It also allows you to correct or move the text around to bets fit in with the speech.
* Once the timecode in embedded, I export the captions in a standard subtitle format file.
* This then gets embedded into the video file and it’s ready for distribution.
There’s lots of checking during the process too!

So it’s fairly labour intensive but my wife works with me in the business so she will be taking over most of the subtitle production moving forward.

Would you like to get a few more deaf subscribers?

Well I can’t deny that it would be nice! My efforts aren’t completely altruistic and yes, it would be great to get more members, but I have to say, it does feel good to know that a large part of the community can now access a weekly video tutorial to help them get the most out of their Mac, iPad or iPhone. After all, Apple have got a great record on accessibility and have made great strides in making their devices accessible. This is just my little contribution!

What’s next for you?

I’ve just created a new App on the Mac App Store – SCOtutor for Lion. It’s a two hour 17 minute long video tutorial with subtitles in multiple languages.

More details here:http://www.screencastsonline/mas

Don’s offering any deafies who might be interested a 50% discount off the initial joining fee, making it $28.50 (£18.03 plus VAT for UK). You can sign up at this page: http://www.screencastsonline.com/extra At the end of the sign up process, just use the coupon code SUBSPECIAL50. If you do sign up, let me know how you get on.

Interview with Phil Clapp, Chief Executive of the Cinema Exhibitors Association

First published in the November 2011 issue of The Hearing Times.

In May, I wrote a comment article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, arguing that deaf people are being let down by the UK cinema industry. The article sparked an online debate, with over 250 people commenting below the line. Soon after trying on some revolutionary subtitle glasses for BBC News, I interviewed Phil Clapp (pictured), Chief Executive of the Cinema Exhibitors Association, to get some answers and find out what cinemas are doing to improve access for deaf film fans.

Charlie: There’s been a lot of negative publicity around cinema access provision lately. I’ve written about issues facing deaf film fans, while an investigation by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign highlighted the challenges people with physical disabilities face. Is this negative publicity fair?

Phil: Where the cinema industry is perceived as failing, be that on disability and access or any other area, of course individuals and organisations have every right to voice their dissatisfaction. But we would hope that any criticism on these issues recognises how far the sector has come in recent years and acknowledges the challenges that exist in meeting the needs of disabled cinema customers. We don’t feel that some of the recent criticism of the industry took these things sufficiently into account.

At present, deaf people feel we are receiving a poor service. Cinema websites often have inaccurate information about subtitled screenings; very few subtitles screenings are scheduled, and when they are, it’s often at inconvenient, off-peak times. Then the subtitles sometimes don’t work. You mentioned the challenges of meeting access needs, but more broadly, are deaf people a priority for the cinemas?

The CEA would not defend instances where customers are given wrong or misleading information, and recognises the frustration this can cause. The growth in subtitled screenings over the last five years (there are now over 750 per week) has undoubtedly presented a challenge to the industry as it has sought to balance the needs of deaf and hearing-impaired customers and those of the wider audience, whilst seeking to maintain profitability.

750 screenings a week sounds like a lot. But could you tell me how many total screenings there are?

A rough estimate is that there are 100,000 screenings per week, spread across the entire sector, from the largest multiplexes to the smallest independent screens.

One in six people have some level of deafness, or 16%. Yet you’re saying that less than 1% of screenings are made accessible to deaf people. How can the cinema industry justify this?

The key barrier to the provision of a greater number of subtitled screenings is a financial one. All the evidence we have is that the wider audience do not wish to see subtitled screenings. Regardless of when they are scheduled, subtitled screenings have average levels of occupancy of just five per cent or less. This means cinemas are foregoing significant income or even losing money on their current subtitled provision. The only way that the number of subtitled screenings will be significantly increased is through the development of new approaches and/or new technology to support deaf and hearing-impaired customers.

But cinemas should not only be considering whether they can make more money from providing access – they also have a legal duty. The Equality Act says that deaf people should not be discriminated against, or treated less fairly in accessing everyday goods and services, such as in cinemas. I would argue that being limited to under 1% of screenings of films, and often at off peak times, is treating deaf people less favourably. Would you agree?

Cinemas absolutely understand their duties under the Equality Act, which are to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in order that deaf or hearing-impaired people (or other people with disabilities) should be able to access cinema. The financial cost of providing that adjustment or service is a material consideration in deciding what is and is not reasonable in this context.

What are the costs involved with a subtitled screening?

The costs involved in a subtitled screening are broadly comparable to those in a standard screening, be it on 35mm film or digital. The ‘cost’ to the cinema is in the income foregone from what would be anticipated to be a significantly better-attended standard screening at a peak time.

With regard to hearing people not liking to watch films with subtitles, don’t they just need to be informed that a screening is being subtitled so they can go to the later, non-subtitled screening? Is that so hard for cinemas to do?

The problem seems to be not that some hearing people don’t like subtitles, but that the vast majority of the hearing audience don’t like them, and many will not come back once turned away. The reality is that cinemas cannot afford to miss out on that level of income.

I’ve worked in theatre access for four years, where caption units – a bit like subtitles – are placed on stage, and audiences accept captions being part of their experience because they are there for deaf people. What’s staggering is in cinemas with up to 20 screens, there are no subtitled screenings at 7.30pm on a Friday evening. Why do cinemas feel they can afford to lose income from one in six potential customers?

Given the typical cinema-going audience, I would question the one in six figure, but there is a wider point here. Most cinemas – certainly those operated by the main chains – are run on a commercial basis. Most cinemas that screen subtitled shows do so on a weekday evening and/or a weekend afternoon because they do not believe that they would see greater income from screening a subtitled show at 7.30 on a Friday evening (to take your example).

Isn’t low attendance at subtitled screenings due to off-peak scheduling and lack of reliable information? Many deaf people would also say that they have been treated poorly by the cinemas which has put them off. So what are cinemas doing to win them back?

The evidence we have suggests that subtitled screenings have much lower attendances than standard shows of the same film at the same time. Most cinemas will advertise subtitled shows on their websites and the industry funds yourlocalcinema.com, providing weekly listings and an email alert service to over 60,000 people. We’re improving information flows between cinemas and distributors around subtitling formats – a common cause of problems. And we’re looking to establish industry-wide benchmarks to indicate how many weekly subtitled screenings the public might expect at each site.

For me, and for some deaf people, we imagine a kind of utopian ideal, involving; muliplexes showing a subtitled film at least once a night, at peak time; staff being deaf aware and knowing when subtitled screenings are scheduled; information being far easier to access on cinemas own websites (instead of having to rely on Your Local Cinema). Is that ideal, which is very reasonable really, ever likely to come true?

Some of those are more realisable than others. The current approach requires distributors, technical partners and cinemas themselves each to play a role. Only one stage needs to go wrong for customers to be disappointed. There is of course no excuse for cinema staff not knowing a subtitled screening is scheduled, nor – technology allowing – for not screening an advertised subtitled show. We’re looking at streamlining communication at each link of the chain. And digitisation, likely to be completed by early 2013, should help, though the economics still mean that subtitled screenings are unlikely to be played at peak times. That’s why operators are actively exploring new technology such as subtitling glasses.

What do you think the glasses can offer deaf cinema goers?

I think most in the industry are hopeful that the subtitling glasses will go a long way to solving some of the current issues, not least in that they will in principle enable deaf and hearing-impaired people to go to any screening and be able to see subtitles. We don’t yet have an idea of cost, but the hope is that if there is sufficient take-up here and in other territories, then economies of scale will kick in. And of course issues of staff training and communication will remain key.

Review – Sencity London

First published in the November 2011 issue of The Hearing Times.

Sencity started in Holland before migrating to South America, Africa and Australia. Finally, on a Saturday night in October it was London’s turn: the multi-sensory disco night arrived at The O2 to a packed deaf crowd.

For deafies who travelled from across the UK and abroad, this was a spectacular night full of smells, tastes and sights that added up to some kind of deaf utopia, an evening that was set on stimulating every sense we have.

As I travelled along the Jubilee line and walked out of North Greenwich station, I saw deaf
hands signing everywhere, and realised just how big this was going to be.

This was the first time I’d been back in a nightclub-style environment since my university days and upon walking in, setting eyes on a long bar that hugged the back wall and a brightly lit dancefloor in the middle of the room, I had a flashback to the times I used to flash my Student Union card for a cheap pint. That, however, was where the similarity ended.

The first sign that something different was happening was when I looked up at the stage to
see two women cooking on a small stove as what looked like dry ice floated upwards. My first thought is they might be hungry campers who’d taken a wrong turn, but then my olfactory system was suddenly stimulated – and I realised that these were the aroma-jockeys, sending what seemed to be the strong smell of lavender and chocolate drifting through the air.

That made me feel slightly hungry (it doesn’t take much), which made the next treat even better, as waitresses in masks walked through the crowd with trays of chocolates and meringues, topped with cream and strawberry sauce, sometimes containing unexpected jelly beans.

As I stepped on the dancefloor, every beat and groove seemed magnified with vibrations.
After eating so much chocolate this made me feel half-queasy so I decided not to risk my John Travolta impression and went upstairs, where I saw people having massages and their hair styled.

This being a deaf event, once you walked into one part of the party it took an age to leave,
simply because deaf people love to talk! Everywhere I looked, I saw people I knew from
different walks of deaf life, and I also met a lot of new people – some of them sign language learners, others for whom this was their first encounter with deaf culture.

One of the highlights for me was taking a few minutes to watch the video jockey at work, with different images appearing on a huge screen behind the stage, which was hypnotising. As the night went on, more performers hit the stage, with Finnish sign-rapper Signmark entertaining what must have been over a thousand deaf people in the crowd.

It’s not often you go to a night with something for everyone, even less often that you attend a night with so much on offer for deaf people. The only downside of Sencity was that for deafies, other nights out are going to seem one dimensional from now on.

Media attacks on the BBC’s live subtitles don’t do deaf people any favours

Error: This subtitle mistake on BBC Breakfast became an internet sensation when an eagle-eyed viewer posted the shot, describing pigs, online

Live subtitling errors on TV are something deaf people have had to grow very used to.

They turn live news or sports programmes into a frustrating guessing game. Way back in 2008, I wrote this diary of a week watching TV to show how many mistakes crop up on screen, and I’m sad to report that subtitles haven’t improved in that time. (To get an idea of just how many errors there are, take a look at this site dedicated to subtitling mistakes.)

But if there is an upside, it’s that every now and then hilarious mistakes crop up.

Back in January, I spotted one such gem on BBC Breakfast. During an item about breeding pigs, a roving reporter explained to the presenter that pigs “love to nibble anything that comes into the shed, like our wellies”. Unfortunately, the subtitles came up as pigs “love to nibble anything that comes into the shed, like our willies” instead. After bring uploaded to Twitter, it even made it into the Guardian.

Last week, the issue came up again, with both the Telegraph and The Mail having a lot of fun (along with doing a bit of ahem, borrowing from yours truly) featuring subtitling errors like the Archbishop of Canterbury being called ‘the arch bitch of Canterbury’ and Ed Milliband being called ‘Ed Miller Band.’ The topic also made it onto the extended version of Have I Got News For You on Sunday.

Interestingly, both articles laid the blame for the subtitling errors at the door of the BBC.

No doubt, the BBC, as a public broadcaster, should be seen to uphold the highest standards when it comes to subtitles, but most deaf people will tell you that mistakes are not limited to Auntie’s shows. They happen on whatever channel live shows are being broadcast on (check out ITV News, Channel Four News or Sky News, and you’ll get the idea).

Additionally, subtitles across the broadcasters (the BBC included) aren’t created in-house. They’re provided by a handful of companies who tender to provide the work for different channels. Companies like Red Bee Media, IMS Media and ITFC, several of whom I spoke to when I wrote my subtitle diary.

The bigger issue is the method by which subtitles are created.

They’re made either by a stenographer typing what’s been said onto a phonetic keyboard as they listen to a show, or by speech recognition, where dialogue is repeated more clearly into a microphone during a programme, with a computer automatically recognising the words.

It’s speech recognition that seems to lead to the most mistakes, as the computer throws up words that sound similar to the right one. ‘Bitch’ instead of Bishop, and so on.

So aiming complaints at the BBC is to be missing the point. What would have been more useful for deaf people would have been for those papers to take a detailed look at subtitle providers and discover which companies (irrespective of channel or broadcaster) provide the most accurate live subtitles. Or look at which method, of stenography or voice recognition, was the most accurate, and to what degree.

That would have helped deaf people out, and in turn held those companies to account.

But it also would have taken up a lot of time and effort. And potential headlines like ‘Deaf viewers complain about standard of random company you’ve never heard of’s live subtitles’ wouldn’t have been nearly as catchy as simply blaming the BBC.

Update: A stenographer wrote this comment on my Facebook wall:

THANK YOU CHARLIE! If I read another “live subtitlers are lazy feckless arses who can’t spell”-type article I think I’ll scream! The problems are inherent in the system: use of respeakers, low pay which means stenographers are not attracted to this type of work unless they have to work at home for personal reasons, and a lack of information for live subititlers which means that when I sit down to subtitle a programme, I know as much about it as the viewing public! No people, we don’t get scripts! But at its most basic, this is the point: live subtitles are produced by people, and people make mistakes. If I had written an absolutely perfect hour, which included the error “Ed Miller Band”, would people still talk about it? Probably. There is no better way of making live subtitles at the moment, so accept the limitations, laugh at the errors and look forward to the future.

Something borrowed…

In the last week  or so, articles in first the Telegraph and then The Mail about live subtitling had a lot of fun featuring funny subtitling errors like the Archbishop of Canterbury being called ‘the arch bitch of Canterbury’ and Ed Milliband being called ‘Ed Miller Band.’

Both articles also laid into the BBC, but more about that later.

There was something awfully familiar about the Telegraph article, and I got a number of Tweets (thanks to @leocondie and @pickwick) about it which encouraged me to take a closer look. Bit of an eye opener.

So… here’s an extract:

Pre-recorded subtitles are done before transmission and appear in time with the programme. Live subtitles, however, are made by a stenographer typing words phonetically as they listen to a show, or with speech recognition, where someone talks into a microphone while listening to the broadcast, and a computer recognises their words.

The latter can lead to the use of words that sound similar to the intended one, but give a very different meaning.

And for comparison, here’s an extract from my article about the world’s worst subtitling mistake back in January:

Deaf people love prerecorded subtitles – these have been carefully done before transmission and appear in time with the programme. Live subtitles are a different story. They are made by a stenographer typing words phonetically as they listen to a show, or with speech recognition, where someone talks into a microphone while listening to the broadcast, and a computer recognises their words.

It is the latter version that leads to the use of words that sound similar to the intended one, but give a very different meaning. 

Hmmm.

Then, in The Mail’s article, I could clearly see the outline of my television and living room wall because they used (without asking) my photo of the ‘Wellies’ subtitling mistake.

Maybe I should contact the Telegraph and The Mail and ask for my cut?

Another un-deafaware Australian…

An Aussie courier delivered a parcel to my house this morning, and in the course of small talk, noticed my hearing aids.
I’m ok with that. I mentioned I come from a deaf family, and used lipreading and sign language as a young pup, hoping to enlighten him (in some small way) about deaf life.
His reply?
“Do you ever get pissed off with your parents because they gave you it?”
What?! Well… no, d***h***!
Firstly, because I’m positive about deaf people being able to do anything a hearing person can. About the great deaf people I know, and the language, understanding and culture we share.
Secondly, for the more obvious reason that if my parents hadn’t had kids out of worry we’d be deaf, I wouldn’t be alive, standing here, talking to you today.
And you’d have no-one to deliver a parcel to.
Which might have been for the best, thinking about it.
On balance, not a good week for Australians and deaf awareness.

Deafness isn’t a “scourge”

An article from Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald has blazed its way through Facebook and Twitter this morning, about Dimity Dornan, an Australian woman who, after winning an award for her business (which is said to help deaf children ‘hear’ through early diagnosis, advanced hearing technology and therapy), went on to compare deafness to polio in her speech.

Dornan said that deafness “is a scourge in our world but it can be almost completely eradicated.” Click here to read the article.

Now, we’re living in a time when a cure for deafness might not be so far away , a subject that was even covered in Ted Evans’ excellent, award winning film The End earlier this year.

The problem is that when you start talking about deafness using the rhetoric Dornan does, you move a long way away from a positive approach to the way many people live with deafness, deaf culture and the unique language deaf people communicate with.

If you say you simply want to consign deafness to history, which is the title of the article, then to many deaf people that feels like you want to get rid of and wipe out a big part of us, and what makes us who we are.

Whatever Dornan’s achievements, she should be more careful about the way she speaks about deafness (which is, after all how the children she helps will go on to identify themselves in future: as being deaf) and acknowledge that many deafies don’t feel they’re living with a “scourge,” or that they’re living with something that needs to be “eradicated.” They’re simply getting on with trying to live positive lives, as deaf people.

UPDATE:

Following news of the comments spreading, a deaf woman wrote an amazing open letter published on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website: http://www.abc.net.au/rampup/articles/2011/10/13/3339101.htm

There’s also a transcript of an ABC news report on the controversy here: http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2011/s3338699.htm