If CBS's Charles Osgood can talk about "seeing" people on the radio, then it's probably OK for members of Utah's deaf community to talk about "reading" the news on KSL-TV.
That's because Ch. 5 recently became the first Utah television station to offer a local newscast that is closed-captioned for the hearing impaired. In fact, KSL is currently closed-captioning its 6 and 10 p.m. nightly newscasts, the scripted portions of the "Focus" and "Midday" daytime programs and "Sportsbeat" on Sundays.And that's a boon to Utah's hearing impaired citizens.
"After seven years of silence the Eyewitness News has come alive again for me," wrote one viewer from Logan. "I may be deaf now, but I am not dumb. Eyewitness News will always be tops with me!"
Another deaf viewer from Santa Clara wrote to express thanks to KSL, indicating that "we needed to know what was going on in the state."
"(Closed-captioning) really helps us so much," the Southern Utah viewer wrote. "I'm so glad that you were willing to do this for the deaf people!!"
Gene D. Stewart and Beth Ann Campbell of Utah's Community Center for the Deaf also wrote to express their appreciation "for this wonderful, wonderful activity which is removing a barrier and allowing literally thousands of people in on `our world."'
It took $20,000 worth of technology and about 18 months of commitment from KSL News Director Spence Kinard to remove that barrier and provide the service that allows deaf viewers who have a special device hooked to their television sets to see the words being spoken on TV printed on the bottom of their screen. A number of network programs - including news and sporting events - are already closed-captioned. But only 31 stations in the country have been adding the service to their local newscasts.
Now there are 32.
"Spence was really the driving force behind our closed-captioning effort," said KSL Operations Manager Greg James during a demonstration of the technology on Tuesday. "About a year-and-a-half ago he decided that this was something that we needed to do, and it's taken until now to overcome all the obstacles."
First, a financially feasible way had to be found to upgrade KSL's computer system so that it could accommodate the closed-captioning technology. Then the staff had to be convinced that it really was worth all the hassle it would require to retrain on a new system and a new way of doing things. Then the staff had to be trained and the system implemented - without interrupting KSL's ongoing service to all of its viewers.
"There was a little resistance at first," James admitted. "We were literally changing everybody's job. But we believe it was worth it.
"I know this is going to sound corny," James continued, "but our decision really was based on our determination to serve the public good. The deaf community isn't really a big consumer bloc, so it's not like we're going to reap financial rewards from this. We just see it as a way of filling a need."
In the meantime, the computer upgrade that was required for closed-captioning has given KSL increased capabilities in other ways. "We've taken all the crap I hate about producing and given it to the computer now," said managing editor Ernie Ford of the new system's capabilities for ordering, timing and tracking the flow of story preparation. "I love the thing."
News anchor Bruce Lindsay, who James says has become a champion of the closed-captioning effort, said the new system has also helped to "move us up one more level in professionalism." Since reporters are now writing for people who will read their words as well as those who will hear them, "we have to be much more aware of things like spelling and punctuation," Lindsay said.
"We're trying to be more literate," he added, "and I think that's helping us to become better journalists."
Writing for closed-captioning also makes reporters "a little more aware" of the hearing impaired, Lindsay said. "Every time we write a story, subconsciously we're thinking about the deaf," he observed. "I can't help but believe that over time that will make us more sensitive."
Which is not to say KSL's switch to closed-captioning hasn't been without its frustrations. "Some funny things appeared on the captions during the first week or two," Ford acknowledged, indicating that anchor directions and notes sometimes slipped by undetected. Weather segments are unscripted and graphics-driven and are therefore uncaptioned. And since the KSL NewStar system doesn't allow them to "hot key" (add captions to words as they are spoken) live interviews and breaking news segments have to run without captions.
But no one is complaining. "The deaf community has been really patient with us," James said. "That's one of the things I've learned in working with the hearing impaired. They're not used to having people make adjustments in their behalf, so their expectations are low. They're just thrilled that we're trying."
And so are the folks at Ch. 5.
"There's a whole bunch of people out there who haven't watched local news because it had no value to them," James said. "Now about 85 percent of our newscast has real value to these people."
And that's a good feeling that is worth all the effort, as far as James is concerned.
"I assume one day KUTV and KTVX will start closed-captioning," he said. "But they'll do it in response to what we've already done. For them it will be a competitive thing. But we did it because it was the right thing to do."