Captioning for TV Commercials

By: David Titmus

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Everyone knows that VITAC provides captioning for some of the most popular programs on broadcast TV. Did you also know that VITAC captions many of the commercials?

Like network shows, commercials require captions to meet federal accessibility mandates. Also like network shows, they are captioned by humans, not voice-recognition technology. Yet unlike most prerecorded shows, the ads VITAC prepares require a special system due to the extremely fast turnaround times for captioning these tv ads, called “spots.” For each spot, which are usually 30 seconds long but could be several minutes, VITAC must produce a caption file according to strict client specifications in under 15 minutes apiece. That may not be hard for a single spot, but these advertisements often arrive in batches of 30 or more at once!

To meet these rush requirements, VITAC uses a proprietary system that bypasses some of the standard customer service protocols to get the spots more quickly to the captioners. using email alerts, a carefully chosen team of experienced captioners distributes the work between them to ensure that all the spots are covered.

Captioning a spot requires very specific knowledge, which is why this corps of Captioners receives special training for this task beforehand. Different rules apply for each client, and the Captioner must first reference the correct document specifying how that client would like the captions to look. For example, a client may specify that a speaker who appears on-screen must be identified by his name (“JOHN:”) whereas a speaker who does not appear must be identified by name in italics (“JOHN:“). Rules also apply for identification of unnamed announcers and adherence to a script, if one is provided.

The most difficult part of captioning a spot is the placement of the captions. Since advertisers want to cram in as much dialogue as possible, it is sometimes tough to find a timeframe long enough to accommodate the text on-screen, as each caption, like a webpage, requires a very short load time. Also important is that no caption ever covers the product being advertised in any way. To avoid the product, a captioner must often use creative caption placement so that the product remains visible in its entirety.

With the Super Bowl coming up again, commercials are sure to be all the buzz in some small way. Lest we forget, many of those ads are captioned one at a time by a dedicated VITAC employee!