SMPTE Newswatch Masthead

NW1Hot Button Discussion

Closed Captioning 

By Michael Goldman 


In recent years, most of the significant action in advancing the accessibility of closed captions in media has occurred in the world of broadband/Internet-based video. This march forward shifted into high gear in the past few years, since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) encouraged adoption of the SMPTE Timed Text (SMPTE-TT) format for delivering closed captions over the Internet. That move occurred as part of the government's larger agenda to move forward accessibility of broadband and wireless content for people with disabilities as mandated by the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) in 2010.


Michael Dolan, a longtime industry veteran, SMPTE member, and founder/president of the consulting firm, Television Broadcast Technology (TBT), says the industry first realized about a decade ago that video content coming out of the broadcast and feature film worlds was starting to swirl across the Internet with no standard for so-called "timed text," including closed captions as part of that mix. Dolan states, formats were "all over the place." Television closed captioning standards such as the original standard, CEA-608, and the more recent CEA-708 standard for digital television, were simply not designed for Web distribution. Yet, closed captioning was a key requirement in the design of the already existing W3C Timed Text Markup Language (TTML). Building on that foundational W3C work, an industry coalition called the Internet Captioning Forum (ICF) proposed a standard to SMPTE in 2007. SMPTE consulted the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT) on the issue, and the following year, formed a new standards group that eventually developed SMPTE Timed Text (SMPTE-TT) and then made the standards publicly available and free-of-charge in 2011, before the FCC action in early 2012.

The basic idea was to permit the authoring requirements of CEA-608 and 708 to be seamlessly applied for delivery of Web content, "while adding extensions to support metadata necessary to properly convey closed captions converted from 608 and 708," Dolan explains. "That resulted in a core set of extensions calledSMPTE ST 2052-1:2010 [a metadata and data tunneling framework extension of the original W3C TTML work], SMPTE RP 2052-10:2012 [a way to convert 608 to SMPTE-TT, including 608-specific metadata and 608 data tunneling], and the forthcoming SMPTE RP 2052-11 [a way to convert 708 to SMPTE-TT, including 708-specific metadata and 708 data tunneling] that gave the industry guidance on how to convert both 708 and 608 to a more Web-friendly format."


Dolan elaborates, "The idea was to do an equivalent representation of CEA-608 and 708 in SMPTE-TT. Everyone still authors captions in 608 [for broadcast content]. There are virtually no native 708 captioning today. 708 was developed for digital television broadcast, but for now, 608 is converted to 708, and now, both can be converted to SMPTE-TT. The idea was to create a more robust format for online delivery--a more state-of-the-art representation of [608 and 708] for online media delivery."


All the design and standardization work has now more-or-less been accomplished at this point, although 608, 708, SMPTE-TT, as well as the separate digital-cinema captioning standard for theatrical exhibition, SMPTE 428-7, will periodically get "tuned-up, based on implementation experience," Dolan states. SMPTE 428-7, for example, is currently being revised to add 3D support to give captions on a big-screen better depth for stereoscopic exhibition.

The real advance now is the fact that SMPTE-TT is, by its nature and today's needs, slowly evolving to become, as 608 has become for traditional broadcast content, the de facto standard not only for Web video generally, but for "virtually all new viewing devices that are mobile, or a secondary display for users, like tablets," Dolan says. "We are now set up so that companies can create encoder products to convert 608 captions into SMPTE-TT captions for delivery to all these other platforms, and probably all the new ones we will be seeing for the foreseeable future. And apps are being created today to decode SMPTE-TT."


Dolan adds that in a world where CEA-608/708 are the broadcast standards and SMPTE-TT is the standard for everything viewed online on different platforms, having them all linked to each other in chain-like fashion makes sense, even if the notion of a single ubiquitous standard from broadcast to Web would seem, philosophically, to be a better idea. Dolan calls this "a chicken-and-egg situation," because the broadcast industry has no real financial incentive to move from a successful, longtime authoring and distribution format like 608 when it only provides captions to begin with, primarily because it is mandated that they do so, rather than because they view them as a major selling feature.


Indeed, movement in the broadcast world on the accessibility issue seems to happen only when governmental mandates require movement. For instance, the FCC in a new regulation titled 47-CFR 79.103, recently mandated that, starting in 2014, all digital set-top boxes manufactured or imported in the U.S. are required to contain built-in closed caption decoder technology for playback of captions. Future set-top boxes and DVR's, therefore, will be more caption-friendly than in the past, and this reality obviously impacts hardware manufacturers. In terms of what formats or standards broadcasters will use for those captions, Dolan expects that to go unchanged for the foreseeable future, because there is simply no compelling reason for broadcasters to make changes to something that works for them. 

"608 and 708 have been around for some time, and everyone has settled in on what it means for broadcasters and decoder manufacturers to be compliant with them," he emphasizes.


On the other hand, those same studios and networks are trying hard to reduce production costs and exploit existing content through the growing use of online-distributed media--a model Dolan suggests is closer to DVD and Blu-ray business models than current broadcast models.


"That is the model that [the cloud-based video-on-demand] UltraViolet [media service from a consortium of major industry players] uses online," he says. "Therefore, a standard way of doing captions and subtitles for that content, which tracks how they did it in the DVD and Blue-ray universe, makes sense to the studios."

The result is that SMPTE-TT will continue to evolve into a bigger and more important factor in the world of online media, and not just for captions, but rather, it will be included in the SMPTE Interoperable Master Format (IMF) for use "on a broader set of distribution applications," as Dolan points out. "For instance, on UltraViolet, it is being used for subtitling in addition to captions, which of course, are not quite the same thing."


More generally, due to governmental requirements, "there is broader work in progress on accessibility on the Internet, television, user interfaces, and all sorts of things that will come along to impact computers, TV's, tablets, and other platforms," he adds. "All of them will be subject to a new level of accessibility laws in the coming years. And for the Timed Text aspect of that, SMPTE-TT will no doubt have an important role to play."

News Briefs

Remembering Pete Vlahos 

The visual effects industry recently mourned the loss, and honored the contributions of one of its most important pioneers, Petro "Pete" Vlahos. Vlahos passed away in early February at the age of 96 after profoundly impacting the motion picture industry by helping to perfect the art of blue and green screen photography, allowing filmmakers, in simple terms, to place people and objects against different kinds of backgrounds with greater realism than ever before. Vlahos' death was imminent as the AMPAS Scientific & Technical Awards Dinner took place in early February, and industry legend Bill Taylor, while accepting the Academy's John Bonner Medal of Commendation for his longtime service to the Academy, took time during his speech to praise Vlahos, one of his mentors, holder of dozens of patents, and a previous Bonner Medal winner himself. Since then, tributes have been pouring in. One of the most detailed obituaries for Vlahos came from the technology division of BBC News, detailing Vlahos' efforts in innovating his technique for 1959's Ben Hur, and later figuring out how to visualize a fantastical sequence in Disney's Mary Poppins in 1964 using his color difference matte composite cinematography technique, among other things. He went on to found the company Ultimatte, was honored by both the motion picture and television academies with special awards of merit and commendations over the years, and left a foundation that has served, for decades, as the basis of much of today's modern visual effects work.

Counting Web Watchers 

The New York Times "Media Decoder" blog recently reported that the Nielsen ratings' service will soon start surveying for their ratings' calculations, viewers who watch broadcast programming over the Internet, rather than via cable or terrestrial broadcast only. Those consumers who connect their TV's to the Internet will, for the first time, be considered what Nielsen calls "television households," essentially altering, for Nielsen's purposes and the billions of dollars in advertising revenue linked to the company's ratings' system, what exactly is the definition of "television." The company also told the newspaper it would eventually begin measuring TV viewership on tablets and other mobile devices. The article also points out that music industry bible Billboard recently announced it would start including YouTube viewers in tabulating the top played songs in the country each week. Such developments culminate a gradual industry realization that Internet viewing is here to stay, growing exponentially, and is profoundly impacting the viewing habits of American consumers. Nielsen hasn't fully explained precisely how it will be counting Web-viewing households, but it did make clear that users of services such as Netflix, Hulu, and others would now be part of its ratings' chase. The Hollywood Reporter had more details on the changes planned by Nielsen.

Canon Gets MREAL

In a recent development in the ongoing quest to bring the virtual world and the real world together for various potential applications, Canon recently announced the debut of its Canon MREAL Imaging system, which the company calls a "mixed reality" viewing technology that allows users to simultaneously view and interact with computer-generated images in combination with images seen in the real world. A  report on the TechNewsWorld site states that the system is hardly ready for home users at a price point of $125,000, but Canon is currently marketing it to the scientific and product design communities, which is clearly stated on itsMREAL Web page. The company claims the system will allow users to get "closer" to the 3D world and interact in greater detail with images, allowing for instant feedback and analysis. The system consists of a head-mounted display that users wear, in which they look through a "free-form prism" at images shown by the system's software. Marker and sensor technology are also shown that allows the system to render and display in 3D images, what users see and touch in the real world. The article hints that Canon has eventual sights on consumers for the technology, and sees other entertainment and educational applications for museum displays, and such.