The running gag principle: Caption the series, not the episode

Gob Bluth in Arrested Development, played by Will Arnett

What would closed captions be like if diehard fans were in charge of captioning their favorite shows?

When TV episodes are closed captioned in isolation, without an awareness of how individual sounds are connected intertextually to other episodes in the series, caption users may be cut off from important themes in the show. Because every TV series builds a set of relationships that connects all the episodes together, these relationships, when mediated through sound, need to be captioned.

“Caption the series, not the episode” is a reminder that recurring themes may be hidden from caption viewers when individual episodes are not captioned from a strong position of series awareness. Achieving this level of awareness may only be possible when the captioner possesses a deep knowledge of the series.

It may be unrealistic to expect captioners to possess such knowledge. Even at the level of the individual episode, captioners can lose sight of the bigger picture that links individual scenes together. I’ve explored this problem in previous blog posts about Pirates II and Dollhouse. How captions can be implicated in spoiling the future — a related issue — is explored in a post about Taken.

It may also be unrealistic to expect captioners to recognize themes that are not yet fully developed (e.g. when a TV series is new) or not available to them (e.g. when background music is changed after the show is captioned). Still, I’m an idealist when it comes to captions. I want them to be better than they are, even if that means asking for something that may seem difficult.

What would captions be like if diehard fans were in charge of captioning their favorite shows?

Gob’s theme in Arrested Development

Consider recurring music that’s identified with a specific character or show theme. The difference between “[Disco]” and “[The Final Countdown]” is no small difference if the show is Arrested Development and the character is Gob. Fans associate Europe’s 1986 hit “The Final Countdown” with Gob. The song always accompanies Gob’s magic act. It has been called “his trademark opening song” (Arrested Development Wikia). It first appears in Season 1, episode 9. An uncaptioned clip from this episode is available on YouTube.

Searching for the song on Arrested Development Wikia turns up seven different episodes in which the song can be heard. The show ran for 53 episodes over three seasons.

As a recurring element intimately tied to a major character, the song must be captioned by title. A generic caption such as “[Disco]” will not suffice to convey the full meaning of the music in the series. In the DVD release of episode 8 of season 3 (“Making a Stand”), the song plays through a boom box:

“[Disco]” is insufficient. If the song is a character’s “trademark,” it needs to be captioned as such, either as “[The Final Countdown”] or “[Europe’s “The Final Countdown”], and accompanied by the requisite music note. While “[Disco]” may work in isolation, it doesn’t work from a series perspective. The boom box also plays a snippet from another recurring song in the series — “It ain’t easy” — which is undercaptioned as “[Country].” Only someone unfamiliar with the show would reduce this song to “[Country].”

When captions are considered from a series perspective, themes are more likely to be visible on the caption track. Caption the series, not the episode.

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S. Zdenek

Dr. Sean Zdenek is an associate professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).


2 Responses

  1. Diane: The captions were placed at the top so they wouldn’t cover the opening credits. Covering the characters’ faces is the price we pay. In this case, captions are placed at the top until the credits are finished, even when captions can be timed to appear at the bottom between credits.