Federal Panel’s Captioning Choices Stir Ire

By Lisa Goldstein — March 10, 2004 6 min read
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The ‘60s sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie” gets a thumbs-down, but the latest celebrity gossip on the syndicated “Inside Edition” gets the green light for closed captioning or video description with federal money, according to the Department of Education.

View full lists of the Education Department’s approved and disapproved programming, from the National Association of the Deaf.

A panel convened by the department made similar judgments about scores of television shows to decide what qualifies as “educational, informational, or news programming.”

That standard, enacted by Congress, took effect in 2001, but the department has moved just within the past year to put it into practice. And the way the department has gone about doing so has raised the ire of advocates for people with disabilities.

“The department wants to limit captioning to puritan shows,” Kelby N. Brick, the associate executive director for law and advocacy at the National Association of the Deaf, in Silver Spring, Md., contended in an e-mail interview.

But department officials defend their efforts as carrying out the desire of Congress to rein in the kinds of programming that can qualify for the federal aid.

For many years, the department provided funds for the captioning or video description of movies, videos, and television programs that provided “enriched educational and cultural experiences.”

The department was criticized under that standard for financing the captioning of such low-brow fare as “The Jerry Springer Show” and such sudsy daytime serials as “All My Children.”

A Puritan Ethic?

The Education Department under President Clinton responded that it was not its place to restrict the access of people with disabilities to a broad range of TV programming. (“Captions Open Window on Culture, Learning,” Feb. 25, 1998.)

“As distasteful as ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ may be to you or me, I do not believe it should be the role of this department ... to single out particular television programs and make a cultural judgment that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing will be denied the same access” to them as “the hearing community,” then-Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a 1998 letter to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., who had questioned the practice.

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Among the television shows the Department of Education has approved or rejected for closed captioning at federal expense are:


American Justice (A&E)
Barney and Friends (PBS)
Dora the Explorer (Nickelodeon)
Face the Nation (CBS)
Fox News Channel daytime news
Inside Edition (syndicated)
Masterpiece Theater (PBS)
Nightline (ABC)
Twilight Zone (Cable in the Classroom)


Law & Order
Malcolm in the Middle (Fox)
Cribs (MTV)
Investigative Reports (A&E)
Powerpuff Girls
Major League Baseball (ESPN/ABC Sports)
NFL Football (Fox)
The Simpsons (Fox)
SOURCE: National Association of the Deaf

Mr. Riley pointed out that in 1997, Congress had added language to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that would eventually narrow the definition of what could be closed-captioned at federal expense. The change, which did not take effect until 2001, dropped the “enriched educational and cultural experiences” standard for the “educational, informational, or news programming.”

Only more recently has the department gotten around to applying the new standard to grants for captioning, which provides written text for a show’s dialogue, and for video description, which provides audio cues for people with visual impairments about what is taking place on screen. The entire process has left advocates such as Mr. Brick of the NAD unhappy.

“The department wants to ensure that over 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are not exposed to any nonpuritan programming,” he wrote in the e-mail interview last month. “Never mind that the rest of the country may be allowed to be exposed to such.”

Mr. Brick said the Education Department’s definition of “news, informational, and educational” programming should undergo the federal rule-making process, which the department did not use to come up with the criteria it is using.

As a result of the review panel’s work, some 200 shows were deemed not appropriate for continued federal funding for closed captioning or video description. The Education Department declined to provide a list of those shows, but it did not take issue with a list of approved and disapproved programs posted on the NAD’s Web site.

The disapproved list includes sports programs such as Major League Baseball, prime-time programming such as the Fox network’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” and even shows that one might have thought would qualify as educational, such as the “Disney Monthly Original Children’s Movie.”

The approved lists includes many popular news and children’s shows, such as educational stalwarts “Sesame Street” and “Barney and Friends.”

The Education Department declined to comment on the individual decisions.

Questions of Definition

Education Department officials defend their decision about how they chose shows for closed captioning or video description.

“I am not sure what they [critics] are responding to, with the exception of our not providing the names of people on the panel,” said Lou Danielson, director of the research-to-practice division of the department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services, which oversees the captioning program.

He continued: “The panel had a difficult job. ... ‘News’ is pretty straightforward, but the broader terms of ‘educational’ and ‘informational,’ that was more of their focus.”

The issue is tricky, he said, because the terms “educational” or “informational” could potentially apply to any program.

After Congress added the “news, educational, and informational programming” standard, Secretary Riley in 1999 solicited public comment on the definitions of those terms.

“The response we received from the public was mainly from advocates who basically said they wanted to extend the broadest possible definition to the terms,” Mr. Danielson said. “But clearly the intent of Congress was to provide some restrictions to programs. ... The responses we got turned out not to be helpful.”

Mr. Riley decided against providing any formal definition of the terms, and his successor, Secretary Rod Paige, has not issued any guidance on the topic either, Mr. Danielson said.

When it came time to issue new grants for captioning and video description for fiscal 2003, the department convened a panel of five experts from the deaf and blind communities and from children’s television. The department offered to keep the names of the panel members private, fearing it would be impossible to recruit members if it didn’t, Mr. Danielson said.

The panel, which conducted its review last summer, was charged with making a one-time determination about which shows should continue to receive funding. The five panel members reviewed shows individually and conferred by e-mail to determine which ones met the guidelines, said Jim Bradshaw, a department spokesman. The department may convene new panels in the future to weigh future applications, he added.

Private Funding

Although the Education Department’s restrictions continue to rankle some, the fact is that more television programming is closed-captioned now than ever, largely because many more shows have found private sources of funding for it.

Federal telecommunications law and prodding from the Federal Communications Commission have resulted phased-in increases in captioning, with a goal of captioning 100 percent of new English-language programming by 2006.

In 1958, the federal appropriation for captioning of films was $78,000, or about $356,000 in today’s dollars. In fiscal 2004, the Education Department spent $12 million on closed captioning and video description.

“We at one time were the main supporter of captioning,” Mr. Danielson said of the Education Department’s efforts. “Much of television is now captioned by the private sector, and our role in captioning has changed.

“It’s a measure of the success of the program we developed,” he continued. “We got it started. This is the way it ought to work.”


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