Tuned In: With HDTVs, it's difficult to use closed captioning
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There's one question I hear most often: "Why do they make the background music so loud that I can't hear the dialogue?"
It's a topic I covered in a 2001 column, but some viewers didn't like the explanation from a local audiologist: Hearing loss often begins in higher frequencies that give clarity to speech while lower frequencies, including background music, can still be heard.
One suggestion that seems to work for some viewers: Set your TV to mono rather than stereo. Others suggest using closed captions, but that can be fraught with its own challenges.
Closed captioning company VITAC, heardquartered near Canonsburg, has launched a campaign to raise awareness of captions, explain how captioning works and answer frequently asked questions via the Web site CaptionsOn.com.
I tried the site's Viewer Relations Bureau on Monday, asking a question I had about why closed captioning hasn't been working since I got an HDTV. I specifically asked about closed captions on ABC's "Men in Trees," and asked if HDTVs don't support closed captions. After I filled out a form, the Viewer Relations Bureau directed me to e-mail Comcast, ABC and WTAE.
As of yesterday, I'd received a generic response from ABC that didn't address my question, no response from Comcast and a human response from WTAE, but it didn't really address my question, probably because the problem I asked about is an emerging one that's gotten a lot of attention in Internet A/V forums but not much in mainstream media.
It's a complex problem that will grow more evident as a growing number of viewers -- especially the deaf, hard-of-hearing and elderly -- make the switch to HDTV sets.
What it comes down to is this: There should be no problem with closed captions if your TV gets an over-the-air digital signal. But if your HDTV is hooked up to a cable box via an HDMI cable -- the preferred choice for the best picture and sound quality -- you can't get closed captions the way you have in the past. I thought my new HDMI-connected HDTV was broken because when I pushed the CC button on the TV's remote, nothing happened.
"If you're using a cable box, it's the cable box's job to open up the captions," explained Tim Taylor, vice president of engineering and facility operations at VITAC. "HDMI doesn't pass the closed caption data."
OK, so you turn on the closed captions through your cable box rather than your TV. No big deal, right? Wrong.
Although some former Adelphia customers have a Scientific Atlanta cable box that allows viewers to turn on CC through a familiar on-screen menu, most Comcast customers have a Motorola cable box with no obvious way to enable CC.
"It's very un-user friendly," said Kyle Davis, deputy field marshal in charge of Best Buy's Geek Squad home theater installations in Cranberry. "You have to get into a menu and the setting may look very discourging to the customer. It looks like something they should not be into."
To turn on closed captions through a Motorola box:
• Your TV should be on but you must turn the cable box off.
• Then press the MENU button on the remote. This brings up a somewhat crude menu.
• Press the down arrow to get to the Closed Captioning line. Press the right arrow button to switch the closed captioning from disabled to enabled.
• Other options appear when you enable the CC, but you probably don't need to worry about those. Press MENU again. Turn the cable box back on and you should have captions.
Davis said Motorola is introducing an update for its boxes that will put the closed caption option in one of the normal menus that won't require the cable box to be turned off. But there's no word on when that might happen.
To make matters more confusing, sometimes how viewers access CC is also a matter of how they connect their TV to the cable box and what channel they're watching, even if they're not using an HDMI cable.
Several informed sources said captions could not be opened by the TV when an HDTV is connected to a cable box using component cables (the red, yellow and white cables). But a Comcast representative said it is possible and I tried it at home and got it to work on an analog channel (WPXI, Channel 12 on Comcast), but Taylor said he couldn't get captions to work with his TV connected via component cables when tuned to an HD channel. Searches of Internet forums suggest some HD channels simply aren't transmitting captions yet.
Clearly, there are multiple variables at play that make getting CC with HDTV a confusing proposition.
What's a consumer in need of captions to do? Ask questions before you buy an HDTV (and remember, your old analog TV will continue to work in February 2009 if it's connected to cable -- with or without a cable box -- or a digital tuner).
Davis said Best Buy's installers can turn on captions for viewers; Comcast technicians can do the same. Taylor said stores should set up HDTV displays with cable boxes that demonstrate real-world situations in their showrooms.
"Once you get the feel for the cable box or satellite receiver, the fear is alleviated a bit," he said. "You're not as much technologically spooked by what you have to do to get the captions on.
"When captioning started in 1980, it was a similar situation. ... This is all new equipment and sometimes it's a matter of getting things sorted out. But it may take a few years and in the process we may have a lot of frustrated consumers."
Last week we wrote about channel changes to city and suburban Comcast systems that go into effect next month. New HD channels will roll out in the city and many suburbs in mid-July, but the changes won't happen in Ross and Castle Shannon until Aug. 19.
Channel 11 will air "The Yanks Are Comin' " (7:30 p.m. tomorrow), a look back at the 1960 World Series when the New York Yankees were last in Pittsburgh. Sports anchor John Fedko hosts the half-hour special, which includes interviews with Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, Yogi Berra, Bill Virdon and Whitey Ford.
Showtime's "Weeds" returned for its fourth season Monday with 1.3 million viewers, the network's most-watched telecast on record, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Monday's series premiere of Showtime's "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" gave the network its most-watched series debut since at least 2004. ... Penn Hills resident Anita Levels is a finalist on "Gospel Dream 2008," an "American Idol"-like competition series on the Gospel Music Channel (Channel 189 on traditional Comcast systems, Channel 156 on former Adelphia systems, Channel 194 on Verizon FiOS TV, Channel 338 on DirecTV). The semifinals air at 9 p.m. Sunday with the season finale on June 29.
This week entertainment editor Sharon Eberson and I address some of the TV questions most frequently asked by viewers. Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.
This week's TV Q&A responds to questions about "Men in Trees," "Celebrity Circus" and FiOS TV. Read it online at post-gazette.com/tv.
First Published June 20, 2008 12:00 am