Transcript of: Chris Mikul’s captioning legacy

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Philip: I’m speaking with Chris Mikul, the outgoing Project Manager of Media Access Australia. Chris, you’ve been with the organisation since it began, and before that held a senior role at the Australian Caption Centre, from which Media Access Australia was born, so you must have seen an awful lot of change over that time. In your view, what have been the biggest of those changes over the past 29 years?

Chris: I suppose from my point of view the biggest change has been the massive growth in captioning on television, because I started out as a lowly captioner in 1987 at the Australian Caption Centre. At that time I think we had 12 captioners in Sydney. There were a couple of hours of captioning on each night on each channel, no legislation covering it, so up to the goodwill of the channels basically to do it. So it was all very new; a lot of people still didn’t know about the service. It was only available on fairly expensive TVs with what was called the teletext function, so it was all a bit of a cottage industry still.

Philip: And this was way before the internet.[laughs]

Chris: Way before the internet, yes indeed. Well, teletext, I don’t know if people are familiar with it, was like an early version of the internet that you had on TV, and you could get stock market results and racing things and so on. It was really big in England for some reason, but it never took off here. So that’s how captions used to be. And of course, it’s grown significantly since then; the big thing was the year 2000 when the first legislation came in, and so we’ve now got it on every channel between 6:00am and midnight, so that’s good. But there is still a way to go to get it to 100%.

Philip: Do you feel that the whole concept of accessibility is more widely understood these days than in the past?

Chris: Oh, definitely. I mean no one really had any idea about it. When I started the networks had no interest in doing it, and I’ve got to say that they[laughs], in many cases they do it because they have to, but there’s certainly a realisation among TV network executives that it’s a service that they need to do and they…

Philip: They have to provide.

Chris: …they have to provide it, not just because it’s the law, but because they do need to provide it, and they need to provide good quality. So that’s been another sort of ongoing battle.

Philip: Okay. And over your time at Media Access Australia what have been some of your achievements that you feel have really made an impact?

Chris: I think the most important thing I’ve done is just battled for caption quality. A few years ago there were a lot of problems, especially with live captioning; live captioning is relatively new. Live captions started back in, around the turn of the new century with highly trained people called STENOcaptions who used to do it, so the quality was generally very good with those people but they trained people for a few years to do it and they were very scarce, and so on. More recently speech recognition has come in, so captioners create captions on the fly as a program gets away with speech recognition. Initially the quality of that a few years ago was pretty terrible, so we’ve done a lot of pushing and engaging with government and with suppliers, and with the various deaf organisations to try and get the quality standards in place. And we used their captions, but we used to get complaints from the public all the time about terrible caption on the news and rarely get it now; it’s really improved out of sight. That’s the biggest win, I suppose. For me, I suppose the most enjoyable thing was doing a couple of rounds of audio description training with firstly from New Zealand; they, to Australia’s shame, started to do audio description on TV there back in, I think it was about three or four years ago now, and of course that’s something that we still have in Australia.

Philip: Do you think it’s going to come to Australian screens in the next couple of years?

Chris: No. People might remember that we had an audio description trial on the ABC in 2012 which went for three months, and that was quite a success, and we expected that that would be followed by a service on Australian TV, and it hasn’t. Both Labour and Liberal governments have shown really not much interest in this. It’s not something that the networks are going to do voluntarily. There has been more recently a trial of it on the ABC iview service which unfortunately has just come to an end, and we don’t know whether that’s going to return, or when that’s going to return if it does. Probably around the world is a newer thing with captioning and there’s not nearly as much of it about, but it is a little bit more expensive and a bit more difficult to do, but yeah, it’s available in lots of countries, in the US and Canada, in the UK, in New Zealand as I say, and lots of European countries. So it’s a pretty terrible thing that Australian blind and vision impaired people do not have this service.

Philip: What are a few of the things that organisations should keep front and centre in their mind before embarking on a digital communications project or a website build?

Chris: They should firstly keep in mind that there’s an awful lot of blind and vision impaired, and deaf and hearing impaired people out there, and so if they want to get their message across they need to provide captioning and audio description on the audio visual material they have. They also need to be aware maybe of the potential for people to launch litigation against them if things aren’t accessible.

Philip: That’s happening more and more, isn’t it?

Chris: Yeah, I mean there’s been a few examples of that in Australia; there was a Coles case recently because the Coles website wasn’t accessible. There’s been a lot of activity in the US about this. Of course, they tend to be a bit more litigious than us, and I suppose the good thing with the US the way it is, is legislation in the US sort of flows through to Australia, so for example, anything on TV now in the US has to have captions if it’s distributed over the internet, which is a big win for the deaf over there. There’s no other country that has legislation like that. But that has flowed through to Australia, so when Netflix launched here last year Netflix had captions on them, and that’s purely because they had to have captions in America and they decided to standardise their service around the world.

Philip: So it’s not only to increase your reach to people, but it’s also as mitigation against possible backlash.

Chris: Exactly, and just on website in general, I think the thing that people need to keep in mind is firstly an accessible website can look exactly the same and it can have all the bells and whistles as a non-accessible website, and it’s always easy to build a website from scratch with accessibility built into it rather than trying to go back and retrofit it, then you have big problems and big costs to do it, and it’s a real hassle, so when developing a new website just think about accessibility.

Philip:And finally, what do you think is shaping as the next big issue in terms of digital accessibility, particularly in the visual sphere?

Chris:Look, in terms of captioning three big issues which are probably all sort of equally important: One is there’s still no proper legislation covering the multi-channels, the digital multi-channels which are all the new channels like Go and 7Two, and 7Mate, and all these channels. All they have to do is caption things that are repeats that have been previously captioned in the primary channel. So that’s a big fail on the part of our government Communications Department and so on, because that’s just ridiculous in this day and age, and normal channels, so they wonder why they’re not captioned. That’s an issue. And we still don’t have captioning legislation covering 24 hours a day. It’s still only 6:00am til midnight, and no one else in the world has that, and it’s just a hangover from the old days of when caption negotiations were done between the deaf groups. The other thing is trying to get caption content on online video, so only three of the catch-up TV services have captions on them; the ABC, SBS and 7. Nine and 10 don’t have that yet. So you can watch a program with captions on TV, but if you want to watch it online on the service the captions aren’t there. And the other thing again is audio description, trying to get that on TV; that’s the big one, the big struggle.

Philip:So there’s still a lot more work to be done?

Chris:Still a whole lot more unfortunately.

Philip:Well thank you for your time Chris and good luck with what lies ahead for you.

Chris:Thank you Philip.

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