TV Captions – Read Them and Laugh, or Weep

Live TV captioning is terrible! I don’t think anyone would disagree. But caption spoofs also provide some levity during this lengthy and grim election season. And YouTube offers quite a few.

Bouton Blog: Bad TV Captioning
Closed captioning for the hard of hearing can sometimes be bewildering. — Getty Images 


“Bad Lip Reading” is a YouTube channel that takes clips from movies, TV shows and news stories and dubs them with captions that match the speakers’ lips. This is possible because only 40 percent of the sounds of speech are visible on the lips. The letters b, p and m , when spoken, look exactly the same. This is why you generally need at least a bit of hearing – as well as attention to the speaker’s facial expressions and to the context of the sentence – to read lips at all accurately.

It’s also why they are so easy to spoof by dubbing in what seem like the words the candidates are saying by the movement of their lips.

Bad Lip Reading created this version of the first Republican Debate It’s been watched more than 18 million times —  quite a few of them by me because I laugh every time I watch it. The first Democratic Debate: is equally funny but has only about 8 million views. Does this say something about YouTube viewers?

Or you might enjoy “DEBATE NIGHT!” — A Bad Lip Reading of the first 2016 Presidential Debate

Or, if you’d prefer more poetic reflective humor, take a look at “PRESIDENTIAL POETRY SLAM” — A Bad Lip Reading of the Second Presidential Debate

For people with hearing loss, those laughs sometimes come when we don’t want them — namely from the bewildering closed captioning that appears on just about any live TV.

It can be a challenge to figure out what these garbled captions mean. In my book, “Shouting Won’t Help,” I listed some examples of captions I have seen in the past:  “The boy ate the bridge.” “Can you hear the garbage?” “He liked to eat morphine.” “Blahmahsan boar genie” – this last meant to be Lamborghini.

More often, you can’t even see the captions because they overlap with the network’s own on-screen information, like a speaker’s name and title. Sometimes if the speaker has a heavy accent, the network provides its own captions, which overlap with the TV set’s captions.  And networks like MSNBC and CNN put so much other written information on the screen, that reading captions becomes impossible.

TV closed captioning was developed for those who are deaf or hard of hearing to give them full access to programming. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules  on captioning quality require that captions be:
•  Accurate: Captions must match the spoken words in the dialogue and convey background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible.
•  Synchronous: Captions must coincide with their corresponding spoken words and sounds to the greatest extent possible and must be displayed on the screen at a speed that can be read by viewers.
•  Complete: Captions must run from the beginning to the end of the program to the fullest extent possible.
•  Properly placed: Captions should not block other important visual content on the screen, overlap one another or run off the edge of the video screen.
The rules distinguish between pre-recorded, live, and near-live programming and explain how the standards apply to each type of programming, recognizing the greater hurdles involved with captioning live and near-live programming.
The problem is that the rules are not enforced. The FCC requires caption accuracy, but if you watch any live TV – news, sports – you will know that they are often woefully incorrect.
As for being synchronous, captions usually lag 3 to 5 seconds or more behind what the speaker is saying.
In addition, when the caption system runs into a problem, it repeats the same nonsensical garble over and over again and then finally quits.
And, as I noted above, most captions are at the bottom of the screen, where they compete for space with information on the person speaking, or a running news tape, as many cable channels have. Try deciphering the captions in all of that.
On the other hand, judging by some of the insults being flung during the final weeks of this campaign, perhaps it is better that we don’t know exactly what some people are saying.

The post first appeared on AARP Health on November 3, 2016.

Living Better jpeg

Katherine Bouton is the author of “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids,” and a memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You”. Both available on

6 thoughts on “TV Captions – Read Them and Laugh, or Weep

    • Re: TV Captions – isn’t there a complaint form to complete whereas one could fill it out and mail to the appropriate office such as the FCC when the closed captions are not accurate? When FCC rules are not followed, I’m sure they are the ones to be notified. Please let us know.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. It’s easy to file an FCC complaint about captioning, online via this link:
    I’ve done it many times, and they do contact the service provider and respond to you. It’s important to note the time, channel and program, and if the problem is placement of captions (as it was for me during the last State of the Union address…captions right across the President’s mouth), take a quick photo to prove you’re not making it up.
    I’ve spoken with high-level FCC staff more than once, who said, “Please file complaints! It gives us better traction to enforce the rules!”


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