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How to Choose a Captioning Service

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There are many reasons to caption online videos. Accessibility compliance is probably one of the most common, especially for schools and organizations subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act or similar state laws. Broadcasters are subject to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, which under the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 now cover the internet delivery of programs that originated on broadcast.

Beyond compliance, captioning is a great way to open up programs to viewers who speak (and read) multiple languages. There are a host of other ways that captions can add value to existing video.

Outsource or DIY?

Less than 10 years ago, it was reasonable for many producers with some captioning needs to get started with the do-it-yourself (DIY) route. Online video platforms were much less mature, so most workflows were strictly tailored for one streaming server and player. Captioning was also more player-dependent. So adding captioning to the mix didn’t seem as onerous, even if it was a lot of work.

Today the DIY route may appear economical at first, but there can be hidden costs when it comes to scale, sustainability, and accuracy.

“We have encountered a handful of universities that have attempted to do this themselves [and] some have stuck with it,” says Kevin Erler, president of online captioning company Automatic Sync Technologies. “Most have discovered that it’s harder than they anticipated.”

Josh Miller, VP of sales and development at captioning vendor 3Play Media, says some enterprise clients that have attempted their own captioning “thought they only had a few videos, (but then) it’s a bigger part of their job.” Those companies discover that “quality and turnaround become serious issues.”

For other organizations, the DIY route just isn’t practical at all. “I was quite sure I didn’t have the technical know-how, nor the time,” says Jeff Brownson, communications coordinator for the State of Oregon’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services program. “We have some extremely competent vendors in the area. So for me it was a matter of farming it out to people who really know what they’re doing, and doing it in a professional way.”

The growth in companies providing captioning services for online video makes outsourcing a practical choice. Additionally, most major online video platforms and content delivery networks (CDNs) support captions out-of-the-box, often including APIs that captioning vendors can leverage to further simplify workflows.

Therefore we see an expanding number of organizations across the enterprise, government, and education outsourcing their captioning needs. In this article I will outline the things you should know about captioning that will help when selecting and working with a vendor.

The Uses of Captions

There are a host of benefits to captioning videos that aren’t always obvious if you are focused on compliance. For instance, captioning videos opens them up to a broader audience of persons who may not consider themselves deaf, but who otherwise have hearing difficulties.

“I’ve seen estimates that 20 percent of web users have hearing loss,” Brownson says. “As more websites use video as a means for dissemination, then the need for captioning really grows.”

Captions also make it easier for other viewers. Erler explains that English as a second language viewers “will generally be able to comprehend the written word before they pick up the nuances of speech.”

Brownson says, “There are advantages for hearing users, who can re-read [captions or transcripts], to help make sure they comprehend” the material.

SEO should not be overlooked, either. According to Miller, “Having text associated with the video goes with the model of the internet being text based.” Especially on platforms such as YouTube, captions serve as a transcript that opens much more of a video’s content to search.

Miller says the question the consider is this: “How can we add value by adding captions? It’s a tool and enabler for content consumption, for the hearing impaired and everyone.”

Carol Studenmund, founder of LNS Captioning in Oregon, has seen her clients experience that value-add. “We’ll start working with a city government and it’s all about compliance. Then they start getting our [caption] files,” she explains. “They love that they can open up the archives and find every time that ‘river crossing’ was mentioned in city council. Captions are used to review what happened.”

Know Your Needs

A captioning vendor should walk you through the information it will need to provide you with the most appropriate service for your application. But as with selecting any service, the more you have a grasp on your needs, the better off you’ll be.

“A client should know why they’re captioning,” says Studenmund. “It’s good to know who the audience is.” For instance, Miller says he would like to know if a client has an employee who needs accommodation or if it’s a matter of compliance.

According to Erler, other common needs include providing in-video search or creating the transcript for language translation.

It’s in the Transcript

Good captions start with a good transcript, which can also be used for translations and multilanguage support. So you’ll need to decide if you are providing your own transcripts or having the vendor transcribe your videos.

A caption transcript starts with a verbatim text of the speech in the video. Then that must be time-synchronized so that the player displays the captions at the proper moment, consistent with the soundtrack.

If transcription is already part of your workflow, most captioning vendors will be able to work with a client-supplied text-only transcript and sync it with the video. Otherwise, most producers likely will need transcripts. Given that this is the most labor-intensive part of the captioning process, most producers are best off leaving it to the specialists.

There is a common misconception that voice recognition software can be used to create a caption transcript. The prevalence of this belief is due in part to the fact that YouTube offers automated captioning of some videos.

However, anyone who has viewed confusing machine-generated captions or received an unintentionally hilarious Google Voice transcript or inappropriate Siri answer should understand why voice recognition alone isn’t sufficient to create transcripts.

“Does quality matter? Is it because you want to enable search and navigation with a really sophisticated audience? Is content your brand?” Miller asks. “If so, you wouldn’t want too many mistakes” in your captions.

Computers, Humans, and Turnaround

It’s important to know how quickly videos need to be captioned. Some producers -- especially those dealing with compliance -- can’t or won’t release videos until they’re captioned, while others have more flexibility. Professional transcriptionists can generate accurate transcriptions faster than your average undergraduate, intern, or editor.

A producer should decide if same-day turnaround is needed or if a wait of 1 or more working days is acceptable. Also, not all vendors offer live captioning, so that’s an important upfront question.

Although speech-to-text recognition is not yet adequate by itself, some companies are using this technology, aided and checked by humans, to speed the captioning of on-demand videos. Automatic Sync takes this approach. “We’ve tried to focus on picking a balance between the two, using human skill when necessary, using automation everywhere else,” says Erler.

3Play uses a similar strategy. According to Miller, “We use speech technology, [putting] it through speech recognition first. We have our own editing platform where somebody corrects the draft.” At the same time, “We take the stance that you will never be able to remove the human.”

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