Captioning the Moment

By law, UK broadcasters must make sure that a minimum percentage of their output is subtitled. This week, I’ve been finding out how this is done.

Traditionally, a typist would be listering to the broadcast and entering the words using a stenography machine. These have a keyboard that accepts syllables rather than individual letters, and complete words would appear to viewers.

However, this method has been superseded by a technique called respeaking. Rather than a typist entering the words by hand, they listen to the audio and speak it into another microphone, where it’s converted into text by software.

So why not simply take the broadcast audio output and convert that directly into text? The computer would have to work out what is speech and to filter out any background noise such as applause, then it would need to be able to accommodate for different people’s accents and mannerisms. Lord Prescott, for instance, is notorious for not finishing his sentences.

Even today, a person can identify the correct content much more effectively than a machine, and can cope better with understanding one voice than thousands.

Respeaking also has two advantages over traditional stenography:

  1. It can take between two and five years of full-time training to use the keyboard at 200 words per minute. Respeakers can reach trainee standard after six months.
  2. The typist’s fingers are left free to make other adjustments, such as the position and colour of the text on the screen.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to assist me in my own writing. While writing this entry, I opened too many browser tabs and other applications, leaving not enough memory to run the software. I could have rebooted the computer to free up space, but I instead typed it out by hand.

What a So-and-So.

I once heard digital information compared to a greasy pig. You can hold on to it for so long before it slips from your grasp. Despite this, I’m unable to find a recording of the BBC Breakfast news item about the use of the word, “so,” at the beginning of sentences. I can only find their Twitter update from Friday:

Nonetheless, I’ve found a great example from last year, when the boss of BlackBerry failed to explain adequately how the company lost direction. Stephen Bates uses the conjunction at least four times at the beginning of answers, and several more throughout.

I think we all know people with verbal tics. I probably have one I’m not aware of. I once had a conversation with someone who kept saying, “He/She turned around and said…” By the end of the conversation, I imagined the other party with a nail in one foot, frantically turning round and around with the other.

On the page, a fictional character with a pet phrase can be a useful device in dialogue. If they always start with, “Well, the thing is, you see,” or call everyone, “love,” it eliminates the need for an identifier when multiple people are speaking. Even a gesture can be effective. I have a novel where a character shrugs when he doesn’t know an answer, and that’s a lot of the time.

But, well, the thing is, you see: balance is key. It’s enough to, like, give a flavour of the character’s go-to words. Including it in every, like, sentence or clause will only, like, annoy the reader.