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Original Issue

Word for Word

Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly wasn't the only person who looked
relieved at 11:40 p.m. on Oct. 31, when closer Byung-Hyun Kim
finished striking out the side in the bottom of the eighth inning
of Game 4 of the World Series, temporarily preserving Arizona's
3-1 lead. More than 400 miles from Yankee Stadium, in a
nondescript room at the VITAC Corporation in Canonsburg, Pa.,
real-time captioner Jane Proud let out a sigh of relief while
also hoping for a similarly easy ninth. To accompany Fox's
telecast, Proud had already delivered, nearly flawlessly, more
than 40,000 words at 180 to 200 words a minute. "We use her for
the big ones," said Proud's supervisor, Amy Bowlen. "She has
nerves of steel." Those nerves were tested in the ninth when the
Yankees' Tino Martinez touched Kim for a two-out home run to tie
the score. Proud, 41, a former court reporter who has worked at
VITAC for eight years, laughed and then sighed: She knows that
she tires in the late innings.

Thanks to the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 (which
requires all new TVs with screens 13 inches or larger to have
captioning capability), almost all live TV sports events are
captioned for the 28 million hearing-impaired viewers and
countless sports bar patrons in the U.S. Unlike most TV
programming, sports events don't have scripts, so sports captions
are often riddled with errors, but companies like VITAC (which
captions major league baseball, NFL and NHL games, among many
other events) are trying to pare the inaccuracies by requiring
their real-time captioners to be uncommonly fast (capable of
transcribing 260 words a minute) and 99.5% accurate. Listening to
a telecast through headphones, a captioner types on the same
22-key stenograph machine court reporters use. The input is
translated by a so-called personal dictionary--a computer program
loaded with thousands of words, names and phrases that might be
used during a particular game--and the captions appear on the
screen after a two-second delay.

Certain announcers, like Fox's Pat Summerall and John Madden
with their terse phrases, are a captioner's delight, while the
long sentences and big words of NBC's Bob Costas cause cringes.
Captioners can't possibly prepare for every announcer's
utterance. Proud didn't even attempt to render a caption when
Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck burst out with "Ahn yong ha sae
yo"--hello in Korean--when Kim entered Game 4 in the eighth. "I
would never watch a baseball game," she said after Derek Jeter's
10th-inning homer capped New York's 4-3 win, "but I love to
caption them."


Terse announcers, like Pat Summerall, are a closed-captioner's