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Universal Access Project Source (Content) Issues
Draft for NTIA Advisory Committee Meeting
January 1995

by Larry Goldberg

In examining the issues surrounding the question of access to the
emerging National Information Infrastructure (NII), the partners to
the Project has broken the challenges down into three basic areas:
Source (or Content); Pipeline; and End-user (or information
appliances). This section of this initial analysis examines the
Content area.

Present Content Access

An analysis of how to achieve accessibility of NII content will
benefit from a brief look at the state of today's access to electronic
communications and how it got to where it is today. In particular,
the development and proliferation of closed captioning (CC) of
television programs for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and
descriptive video for people who are blind or visually impaired will
give insight into how access to the content of the NII can be
accomplished. The technologies, standards, guidelines, funding,
proliferation and dissemination of these existing services can point
to barriers and lessons for assuring access to the vast flow of
information that makes up the NII.

"The following program has been closed captioned for the hearing

Though the words are familiar, even today many people are unaware of
the what closed captioning is and where it came from. Where we hope
it is going is that it will become a standard, user-selectable feature
of any future electronic communication that incorporates audio into
its content.

A Brief History

To be completely accurate, it should be noted that captioning began as
a standard part of the very first moving pictures. The interstitial
titles on the early silent movies constituted a form of access to
content for all. And, is too often the case, advancements in
technology (i.e., the invention of movie sound) immediately created a
group of people who were left out (i.e., people who could not hear).
It wasn't until the late 1950's that the federal government tried to
remedy the situation with the establishment of the Captioned Films for
the Deaf program in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
This early initiative provided subtitled (or "open captioned") 16mm
copies of current movies which were then circulated among the deaf

In the early 1970's, a parallel program was begun on public
television, where a limited number of television programs were open
captioned, thus providing the first accessible electronic
communications for people who were deaf or hard-of-hearing. It is
however, the development of closed captioning, an electronic data
format that gave users simultaneous access through the push of a
button, that became the great advance toward universal access to

The Benefits of a Single Standard

An important lesson can be learned from the history of closed
captioning by noting its exceedingly centralized beginnings. In the
mid-70s, a relatively small number of engineers at the Public
Broadcasting Service (PBS) began working with their counterparts in
the federal government, at ABC television, and at PBS-member station
WGBH. The goal was to come up with a method for encoding hidden data
(consisting of the text translation of the audio of a TV program) into
a television signal, which would then be transmitted to all viewers'
homes simultaneously and decoded back into a textual representation at
will (with a special device).

The caption production process, the data encoding format, the
transmission protocols, and the decoding device were all developed by
the same team in a unified effort with voluntary support from the
public and private sectors. This consolidated effort avoided the
problem common to many new technology developments-- competing
technical standards. Therefore, when the technology was launched in
1980, one single data format addressed one single end-user device and
consumers were spared the problem of having to chose between competing

The Drawbacks

Three mistakes that should not be made today in developing new
standards and guidelines for access to electronic communications were
made by the early developers of closed captioning. First, the data
format was made proprietary, so that all closed-captioned access was
controlled by a single agency. Second, the end-user had to purchase
an expensive and unwieldy device as an add-on to his TV set in order
to gain access to the medium. And the third mistake, which is the
reason for the very existence of this movement for Universal Access to
the NII, is that electronic access to television programs was a
30-year afterthought, a retrofit which hampered its growth and
universality until 1993 when the TV Decoder Circuitry Act took effect.
Developers of today's technology for access to the NII are well aware
of this lesson, making every effort to build access in, not add it on.

Standards and Guidelines

The seriously debilitating monopolization of the early
closed-captioning service did yield certain benefits still being
realized today. First, the data format remains a common, universal,
and robust one which has smoothly migrated to today's built-in
technology and which is preparing to move by a consensus process into
tomorrow's Advanced Television (ATV) system. Second, the look and
feel of today's closed captions, their preparation and presentation,
is relatively common on the thousands of hours of live and
pre-recorded closed-captioned programs being distributed today. This
near-common presentation is due to the fact that competition in the
world of closed captioning was an extremely slow process, with at
first only one, then two, then three organizations performing 95% of
the captioning for the first ten years of its existence. With such a
limited genesis, today's hundreds of captioning agencies can be guided
by a common heritage.

This, for better or worse, is not likely to be the case in the
development of access to the content of the NII. If we are to achieve
a satisfactory level of access to the vast quantity of electronic
communications flowing around the world, the inclusion of those access
features (the "captioning" and "description" of the future) will have
to be produced and proliferated by the producers of their own content.
Though this Project and others are attempting to establish these
technical standards and presentation guidelines, the difficulty of
instituting them will be made tremendously more challenging due to the
decentralization of the new communications environment.

Funding and Proliferation

The growth of the closed captioning service tracked a slow and gradual
curve through the 1980's. What began in 1980 as a 15-hour per week
dream became by the end of the decade a 400-hour per week reality. Of
course, the availability of programming grew on an even steeper curve,
with the three commercial and one public networks being matched by
1990 by hundreds of new broadcast, cable, and home video sources of

Captioning began as a government-funded possibility and exists today
with a strong role continuing to be played by millions of dollars
provided by the Federal government through its Department of
Education. And though the private sector today contributes more than
half of the total dollars spent on captioning (through the networks,
cable channels, producers, advertisers, home video distributors, ad
agencies, and record companies), captioning would not exist without a
federal subsidy. Today, closed captioning is widespread: on 100% of
prime- time programming, most national news, most children's programs,
much of daytime and late-night, pay cable, syndicated programs, top
home-video releases, ads, and music videos.

However, an evident large gap exists in the presence of television
captioning, and this gap is an important lesson for the future of new
accessible communications: basic cable programming is at most
captioned 5% of the time and it is the proliferation of a multitude of
narrow-cast information services that most resembles the electronic
communications environment of the future.

A Final Question

Without Federal interest, involvement, and funding, closed captioning
would not exist today as a widespread and common service. The time of
its birth, the nature of the media at that time, and the economy of
the nation through captioning's early, fragile years fostered a
successful access service. Could such a service be started today, with
the changes in the economy, the media, the climate in Washington and
in society? If the answer is no, then the lessons to be gained from
the history of the growth of captioning must be examined closely.
With all of these changes, not the least being the explosive growth in
technology, new paradigms for assuring access to NII content must and
will be developed, borrowing judiciously from the past but inventing
much new for the future, with special attention to innovative
production and economic models.

Audio Description

This relatively new service, which provides narrated descriptions of
scenes in television programs, was launched at WGBH in 1988 as an
experimental service for blind and visually impaired viewers. Taking
its cues and forming its roots from the previously developed art of
live theater description, WGBH's Descriptive Video Service [c]
(DVS[tm] began describing the drama series American Playhouse as a
pilot series. Response from blind and visually impaired users was
overwhelmingly positive and, through Federal funding, a limited number
of dramatic and documentary series on PBS became the latest examples
of technological access to electronic communications.


Audio description, unlike closed captioning, was not a service that
relied heavily on the development of new technology. Carefully
written descriptions which were artfully placed in between the dialog
and narration of television programs, required no more technology than
a word-processing computer and an audio mixing board. Delivery of the
descriptions to the viewer was accomplished by means of the Second
Audio Program (SAP) channel established as part of the Multichannel
Television Stereo (MTS) standard adopted in the U.S. in 1985. This
third audio channel (after the left and right stereo channels) was
originally intended as an apt home for translations of a program's
audio into another language. Though the SAP channel eventually became
more readily and widely adopted as the home for DVS, it is worth
noting that the SAP channel was intended as an access technology from
its first development.

Audio description (or, as it is sometimes called, descriptive video )
eventually expanded to the home video world through a mail-ordered
service of "open-described" popular videos (early titles included Top
Gun, Ghost, Beauty and the Beast, and Pretty Woman). Though the
cooperation and active support of PBS, its producers, and the
Hollywood studios was required for audio description of television to
begin to take root, it was substantial Federal funding, first from the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting and then from the U.S. Department
of Education, that enabled the new service to initiate its start-up

Standards and Guidelines

As in the pioneer days of closed captioning, descriptive video both
benefits and suffers from being a virtual single-source service. At
this point (early 1995) there are only two national providers of
descriptive video-- WGBH and the Narrative Television Network. Though
there are no technological barriers to entry into the field by others,
limited funding and the lack of a widespread awareness and
understanding of the service's value has resulted in slow growth
(though not so far behind closed captioning's early days).

Lessons to be Learned

The benefit of this slow start-up period is that the content standard
has had ample opportunity to become fully formed and those
presentation features of descriptive video that can be ported to the
world of the NII are ready to go.

Therefore, the lessons to be learned from descriptive video's early
days as a new form of access to electronic communications include the
fact that presentation standards and guidelines are best developed in
a centralized fashion as the medium is developed. In addition, it's
important to note that the slow growth of descriptive video is
partially due to the fact that it is considered an add-on adaptation
or retrofit, not an integral part of the source material. And third,
it's vital to the successful development of access to NII content for
people who are blind and visually impaired that careful analysis be
made of the centralized production and funding mechanisms in place
today and their applicability to tomorrow.

New media access activities

Now the work must go forward in applying the concept of textual
representation of audio content, and aural and tactual representation
of visual content to the electronic communications that are today and
will tomorrow flow over the nation's information superhighway.
Assuming that this electronic content will become ever more
graphically oriented while relying more and more on audio as both
input and output, access for people who are sensory- impaired demands
our attention.

Work Begins

Stated simplistically, since the content of the NII is fully digital,
it is the data structure of the content that must be designed to carry
access capabilities and the producers of that data must provide their
information in a multimodal format. Much has already been done to
pave the way for such naturally accessible content. And much remains
to be done.

The White House Tries It

For example, when the White House announced the launch of its World
Wide Web home page, "the White House Tour," efforts were made to make
the technology accessible to people who are deaf or blind. Audio
clips of greetings from President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and
even Socks the cat could be heard as well as read, by clicking on a
"text" link (Socks' greeting was rendered as "meow" when clicked).

The graphically rich and elegant Home and subsequent pages could be
turned into text for access by a blind-user's screen-reader, but the
graphic images themselves were not described. Without much additional
effort, such graphics, when created in the JPEG format, would have
descriptions attached in a comment box that is scannable by screen

Two Solutions Needed

As should be clear from this paper, two separate solutions are
required when trying to make electronic communications accessible.
First, the technology must be able to accommodate the alternate modes
of presentation. And second, the common or standardized presentations
of these alternate modes must be developed in order to facilitate
understanding and acceptance of a common language.

Adapted Interactive Media

The best and most that can be borrowed from the electronic adaptations
of the past (closed captioning and descriptive video) is the tried and
true means of presenting the new text or audio to conversely provide
access to the audio or pictures. The Adapted Interactive Media (AIM)
project at the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM)
applied many of the rules of standard television closed captioning to
the world on interactive videodisks. The project also made use of the
additional capabilities of this combination analog and digital medium
to create new approaches to making an interactive videodisk program
accessible to students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The results
of that project are available from NCAM as published guidelines.

The AIM project (which was prototyped on the Hypercard- and
laser-disk-based Interactive NOVA product) experimented with standard
television closed captions, analog sign language on the videodisk,
digital sign language on the computer, two grade-levels of
presentation of on-screen text for readers of differing skill levels,
and an enhanced on-line glossary for reference.

The challenge of adapting the same product for students who are blind
or visually impaired has yet to be met, though projects to attack just
this issue have been proposed.


IBM's operating system that forms the base for its multimedia (or
Ultimedia as it is known in the OS/2 world) platform has already
incorporated captioning as a system option. With the help of experts
from the field of closed captioning, IBM devised a means of attaching
synchronized text to audio emanating from the computer. Rudimentary
guidelines for the use of this feature, based on televised closed
captioning, have been published by IBM as well.

IBM has expressed interest in figuring out how to make the OS/2 and
Ultimedia platforms accessible to people who are blind and visually
impaired. Though attachment of sound files to various events
occurring in the software is possible, the guidelines have not been
devised for how and when and where to describe on-screen events and
navigation through this multimedia world remains graphically

Digital Captioning

In the world of computer-based moving images, the attachment of text
files which present the audio in a visual mode is technically quite
feasible. On the Macintosh platform, the QuickTime standard's latest
releases have included the ability to attach synchronized text to
"movies" that contain audio. The addition of these text attributes is
presently the responsibility of the programmer or creator of the movie
file since a relatively high level of programming knowledge is
necessary to accomplish this form of captioning.

Similarly, in Microsoft's Video for Windows, text can also be
synchronized and made available to the user, again with the inclusion
of these attributes in the hands of the originator of the content.
This is indeed the model that should be used for the future of access
to new electronic media that contains sound and pictures: inclusion of
access features and content (captioning and/or description) should be
enabled and included by and at the source of the media, not by third
parties as an after-the- fact retrofit.

Professor Cindy King of Gallaudet University has been researching and
developing innovative uses of captioning in fully digital
environments. Her work in the educational field, particularly in the
development of caption authoring tools for digital media, should be
examined for applicability to the development of standards and
guidelines for access to the NII for people deaf and hard- of-hearing.

Print Access: Newsline for the Blind

An innovative project developed as a partnership of the National
Federation of the Blind, the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible
Media (NCAM), and the USA Today newspaper may have relevance to
furthering access to the NII for people who are print-disabled (i.e.,
people who are blind or visually impaired, have a learning disability,
or who can't easily manipulate newspapers or other print material).

This is the "Newsline for the Blind," a phone-based technology that
delivers the text of USA Today to registered blind viewers through
speech synthesis (DEC Talk). With a system that leaves all the
technology at the system operator's end, a user simply dials a phone
number, enters an ID number and security code, and then is able to
navigate around the sections, headlines, and stories in a daily
newspaper by using the 12 touch-tone keypads on a standard telephone.
The text itself is delivered via modem at 6am each day from USA
Today's Virginia headquarters to NFB's Pentium computer in Baltimore.
After some judicious data indexing, the newspaper becomes available
via four phone lines in Baltimore (which become quickly overloaded at
various times during the day).

The lesson here is that in the transition from today's information
appliances (phones, modems, computers, radios, TV sets) to tomorrow's,
there will be a period wherein the layman's technology will require
the "intelligence to be in the network." That is, it will be a long
while before sophisticated, high-end but user-friendly set-top boxes
or smart phones are widely proliferated. In these intervening times,
accessible media should be accommodated via the technology disabled
users own and are comfortable with today.

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