Hearing Loss and the Plight of Poor Television Captions

“The television captions are ahead again” I told my family one evening as we were watching the PBS documentary Frontier House. Since it aired originally in 2002, I had expected the production value to be high, but in several of the episodes, the closed captions ran 30-60 seconds ahead, making them unusable. After a few starts and stops — turning the captions on and off, exiting and restarting the PBS app — we gave up. “That is frustrating,” my family replied calmly. We raised the volume and continued to watch.

But soon the sound went out. The video played but the audio was gone. Outrage ensued!

“How can we watch without the sound?” “I would have expected PBS to be better than this!” “Should we stop watching?” “This is so unfair!”

“Welcome to my world,” I said. “But this is the sound!” they replied.

Yes, but for people with hearing loss, captions are our sound.

Hearing Loss Is Not Well Understood

My family is incredibly supportive of me and my hearing loss. They pick restaurants based on acoustics, choose captioned content to stream so I can follow along, and do their best to use communication best practices like getting my attention before speaking. I am grateful for their efforts and their support.

But, obviously, they still don’t fully understand. How could they? Hearing loss is very difficult to comprehend if you haven’t experienced it yourself, yet as the family of an avid advocate for all things hearing loss related, I was disappointed that they considered captions a mere nice-to-have, while the sound was an imperative.

Maybe they are just not used to reading their way through a TV program. In fact, none of them noticed the timing problems with the captions until I mentioned it. I was surprised, especially because I know my husband likes to use the captions at theater productions. TV watching was different.

Report Television Captioning Issues So Fixes Can Be Made

Television captioning problems are fairly common, although, in my experience, most problems occur on live programs like the news or a sporting event. On pre-recorded content, captions tend to be better. No matter where I see captioning problems, I do my best to report them and you should too. Doing so allows the broadcaster or distributor to fix the issue for other viewers. Consistent problems with a particular show or network should also be referred to the appropriate agency.

Most captioning problems in the United States can be reported to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) using this form. Or reach out to the provider of the content directly. I registered a captions complaint on the PBS website. I hope I will hear back from them soon.

Today is the Best Time Yet to Have Hearing Loss

Watching Frontier House, even with its sound and captioning problems, reminded me how grateful I am to be facing the challenges of hearing loss today, rather than back in the 1880s on the American frontier. Or any other time in history, really.

Today, we enjoy cutting edge hearing aid technologies and the miracle of cochlear implants. There are a multitude of consumer devices, Hearables, and Apps that can assist us with communication. And more are coming to market every day.

The advent of OTC hearing aids in the United States will spur more products for people with hearing loss and generate increased access at a variety of price points. While FDA standard setting has been delayed due to the pandemic, my hope is that we will see these new products available some time next year. The future for living with hearing loss is bright.

Readers, do you read your way through television programs?

29 thoughts on “Hearing Loss and the Plight of Poor Television Captions

  1. My issue with captions involves vintage films and documentaries that I find on YouTube. Silent film captions are fine, because they’re the original ones produced along with the films. But sound movie captions are very often full of misspellings, and scrambled punctuation that makes it difficult to tell which words go with which speaker. Wouldn’t it make sense for the people writing the captions to first view the show to familiarize themselves with the script, so they can at least get the characters’ names right?
    The Described and Captioned Media Program does a very good job with captioning. Everything is spelled correctly, and different type faces are used to indicate someone speaking off-screen, for example. I just wish they had more films available.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      No, but that is a great topic! It can make things very hard to hear. Thanks for the idea.

  2. I have a problem with a certain PBS world channel episode which has captions in mixed Engflish and Spanish/Mexican words. Although the words are printed and placed well, the mixture does not allow me full access to the verbal English content I need to enjoy the program, thus I turn it off.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      That would be difficult to understand. Please report it so they are aware. Perhaps they can fix it. Thank you for your comment.

  3. This drives me nuts, and as a result I rarely try listening to the radio. Although I love the IDEA of NPR, I can’t listen to it for more than 5 minutes.!

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      When I was interviewed on NPR I asked them to provide a transcript on their site so others could read it if they were not able to listen and they happily obliged. That should be the rule for all audio content. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Jerry Henderson – Pownal Maine – Thank you for coming to my space. This is where I post thoughts, opinions and commentary on a variety of subjects at irregular intervals. I try to do something weekly, but have not nailed down a rigid schedule, like every Wednesday, yet. If you would like email notifications of new posts, you can make that happen right on the site. Simply enter your email address to subscribe. Also, if you would like to comment I welcome that. Just do so in the space at the bottom of any selected post. Sharing thoughts, opinion and commentary is a peculiarly human characteristic. It must be exercised to be enjoyed. Jerry Henderson
    Jerry Henderson says:

    Some misguided producer probably feels that this background music (noise) is the creative breakthrough of the decade.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Yes, many people do not understand hearing loss and the challenges of listening in noise. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Thanks for encouraging people to file complaints over poor TV captioning. It’s quick and easy to do online and the response — a notice that the TV provider has been informed — is pretty prompt.

    You asked for caption feedback: As sports fan, televised NY Mets games are a guilty pleasure. But my cable provider, Spectrum, or the source, the SNY channel, put the captions directly over the box showing balls and strikes, # of outs, # of pitches thrown, and the game score. So I complained – because the regulations require captioning to not interfere with basic or essential program content.

    I now await the cable service’s response. The FCC gives them 30 days.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Good luck! Thank you for filing the report.

  6. Jerry Henderson – Pownal Maine – Thank you for coming to my space. This is where I post thoughts, opinions and commentary on a variety of subjects at irregular intervals. I try to do something weekly, but have not nailed down a rigid schedule, like every Wednesday, yet. If you would like email notifications of new posts, you can make that happen right on the site. Simply enter your email address to subscribe. Also, if you would like to comment I welcome that. Just do so in the space at the bottom of any selected post. Sharing thoughts, opinion and commentary is a peculiarly human characteristic. It must be exercised to be enjoyed. Jerry Henderson
    Jerry Henderson says:

    If there are no captions I usually don’t watch it. It the captions are badly positioned or if the lag time is too great then it’s too annoying to bother with. I need captions as well as a streaming audio function. Captioning seems to be in its developmental infancy. For that matter, I sometimes feel I too am also in my developmental infancy. HA!

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      LOL! Aren’t we all! Thanks for weighing in on the subject.

  7. I haven’t watched anything without captions in 20 years. They have improved over the years. The lag you talk about, either ahead or behind, makes it nearly impossible to follow the dialogue and I rarely even bother trying to watch anything live.
    Another issue that I find disturbing is that the captions are sometimes censored for language or brevity. I want the same dialogue everyone else hears, not someone’s interpretation.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Excellent point. We should be able to “hear” it all. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  8. There were a couple of incidents on my local tv station that I had emailed their appropriate department on their website when captioning went really bad. I don’t know what happened on their end on why it all of sudden went really bad but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised that the station promptly got it fixed. They even wanted to know at what time I was watching and what show it was that I was watching. You are right that we need to keep advocating for ourselves if we want things to get better for all of us hearing impaired. Thank you for your work on our behalf.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Thank you for your advocacy and for sharing your success!

  9. I gave up reporting captioning problems to the FCC. They want to know the channel, and the time. If I recorded EVERY instance, they would probably filter out my name as being a pest. The FCC obviously does not watch TV. There is NO reason that a pre-recorded program should not be 100% correct. I noted this in the comments to the Patient Focused Drug Development meeting hosted by the HLAA. True, the problem is not within the FDA, but the frustrations that we have to deal with should be

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      It can be frustrating but it is important to report issues. Without notification, things cannot improve. Thank you for your advocacy.

  10. I had the word Thailand in mine last night in a live Facebook feed if they had put the right word I might have understood better what he was saying because it was nothing to do with Thailand.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Oh no! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  11. Jerry Henderson – Pownal Maine – Thank you for coming to my space. This is where I post thoughts, opinions and commentary on a variety of subjects at irregular intervals. I try to do something weekly, but have not nailed down a rigid schedule, like every Wednesday, yet. If you would like email notifications of new posts, you can make that happen right on the site. Simply enter your email address to subscribe. Also, if you would like to comment I welcome that. Just do so in the space at the bottom of any selected post. Sharing thoughts, opinion and commentary is a peculiarly human characteristic. It must be exercised to be enjoyed. Jerry Henderson
    Jerry Henderson says:

    It is rare that I can understand TV without captions. News seems easier but drama is a lost cause without them. My blue tooth streamer is wonderful but even so, without captions I am usually lost.

    The entire caption effort seems to me to be lost in its effort to be effective. Trying to configure captions on my TV is a Draconian experience. Nothing is user friendly.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      Thanks for continuing the conversation.

  12. Jerry Henderson – Pownal Maine – Thank you for coming to my space. This is where I post thoughts, opinions and commentary on a variety of subjects at irregular intervals. I try to do something weekly, but have not nailed down a rigid schedule, like every Wednesday, yet. If you would like email notifications of new posts, you can make that happen right on the site. Simply enter your email address to subscribe. Also, if you would like to comment I welcome that. Just do so in the space at the bottom of any selected post. Sharing thoughts, opinion and commentary is a peculiarly human characteristic. It must be exercised to be enjoyed. Jerry Henderson
    Jerry Henderson says:

    I think I am repeating myself.

  13. I travel a lot and trying to get movies on airplanes with CC is very frustrating. Most flight attendants think I am talking about subtitles and that I want the movie in another language! Also, on many airlines there is no way to tell which movies have CC until you select them and wait through the airline commercials. I tried 5 movies recently until I found one that had CC available. So frustrating.

    1. Shari Eberts – NYC – Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Shari also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
      Shari Eberts says:

      It can be frustrating. I had some good luck on Delta recently. Thanks for your comment.

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