Close captioning has been in the entertainment news twice so far in 2023 related to two large events: the Sundance Film Festival and the Grammy Awards.

Here are two articles that outline what happened:

Both articles highlight issues that happened with closed captions, in one instance not being available for a film, and another a situation where part of a live broadcast wasn’t captioned correctly. Each of these was avoidable, and each has an aspect that shows that captions sometimes are not viewed as essential.

Caption Malfunction

In the case of the Magazine Dreams premiere at Sundance, according to the Deadline report, the captioning device that actress Marlee Matlin, who was a Sundance juror at the 2023 festival, did not function correctly. And after several minutes of trying to fix the device, Matlin and her fellow jurors left the screening.

It was great to read about the solidarity of the jurors, to leave the screening rather than one of them not being able to fully engage with the movie. Hopefully Sundance and filmmakers will get better to ensure that everyone can engage with movies (and all media) in the way that is best for them. Further, it needs to be easily available and not something that’s only at certain showings, or at certain venues.

Caption Fail

In my view, far worse than the Sundance malfunction was CBS’s captioning efforts for the 2023 Grammy Awards. Artist Bad Bunny not only opened the show, but later won. While Bad Bunny was singing in Spanish, the East Coast live audience saw “SINGING NON-ENGLISH.” Then, during Bad Bunny’s acceptance speech, which he delivered in a mix of English and Spanish, for the Spanish parts the caption read “SPEAKING NON-ENGLISH.”

This is unacceptable. Yes, it’s a live performance and that adds additional challenges to providing accurate captions. However, CBS was aware in advance what Bad Bunny would sing and they should’ve prepared for that as they organized the captioning effort. Further, since he was nominated, there should’ve been anticipation that he might win and offer a multilingual speech and therefore a multilingual captioner should have been on duty.

CBS fixed the issue for the West Coast replay, and the streaming version on Paramount+, but it still doesn’t excuse not having correct captions for those watching on the East Coast. Closed captions on televisions aren’t a new thing, and networks should do a better job to ensure their programming is accessible and inclusive of everyone.

To their credit, a few days later, CBS’s President & CEO also took full responsibility for what happened and pledged to do better. In a letter to U.S. Rep Robert Garcia, George Cheeks wrote, “We worked with a closed captioning vendor that did not execute at a standard to which we should rightfully be held. Regardless, we should have monitored the situation more closely. A bilingual (English and Spanish-language) real-time live captioner should have been utilized and the words used on the screen were insensitive to many. I take full responsibility for what happened.” You can read the full story on the apology here: “CBS CEO George Cheeks Takes ‘Full Responsibility’ For Close Captioning Snafu Involving Bad Bunny At Grammys” on Deadline (this link opens a new tab)

Let’s hope this means improved closed captions for everyone, and that other TV networks and streamers take note of CBS’s failure to improve their processes too.

And a Broadway Captioning Experience…

I’ll leave you with one last story on captioning. This one comes from Meryl Evans, who I follow on LinkedIn because she offers great insight around all things digital accessibility. Meryl loves theater and recently attended MJ The Musical on Broadway. It was not a great experience because the caption device didn’t work. I encourage you to read Meryl’s account on LinkedIn (this link opens a new tab). It’s a great look at the issues that people with hearing disabilities can face when trying to enjoy an evening out at the theater.

In Conclusion…

I’ll leave all the creators with a simple request: Make sure your audio-only programs have properly edited and formatted transcripts, and that your videos have properly edited and formatted captions. That way, everyone in your audience will feel included.