At 6pm on Super Bowl Sunday, viewers across the country will settle onto their couches surrounded by chips and buffalo wings to watch Super Bowl LIII. Here at WGBH, Janet Mahoney will settle into her office chair to provide a vital service: real-time closed captioning so that the 37 million people who are hearing-impaired can also enjoy the game.
Through WGBH’s Media Access Group (MAG), Mahoney and a fellow stenographer in Western Massachusetts will “live-write” the full broadcast remotely, working as part of a team of specialists from other networks tasked with making the game accessible. While the captions are critical for the hearing-impaired community, they will also be used by viewers watching the game in noisy public spaces, including bars, airports and gyms—and will potentially be seen by more than 100 million people worldwide.
No pressure, right?
Football isn’t new for MAG, which has had a long-standing relationship with the Patriots and the team’s owner, the Kraft Group, and has historically provided closed captioning for the Patriots All Access Show, as well as other events at Gillette Stadium like New England Revolution games.
So, what does it take to successfully provide this service for one of the biggest cultural events in the United States? Preparation is key. Before the game, Mahoney will spend time studying up on all of the coaches and players on each team so that she’s ready to write about anyone whom the announcers mention. She’ll also dig into all sorts of Super Bowl history, including past Most Valuable Players, so that, as those stats and players are mentioned, she can type them up in real-time.
“It’s like being an athlete,” Mahoney said, pointing out that a relief pitcher would never go to the mound without preparation, and neither would she. Like a professional athlete, Mahoney has been around the game for a long time, having been a stenographer for more than 30 years.
Real-time captioning, known as “live-writing,” requires a unique skillset. The stenographer must process every single word spoken in rapid succession—often by multiple speakers. Experience helps, and Mahoney says that she often becomes familiar with the cadence or pattern of speech of certain announcers or reporters whom she captions frequently: some talk fast, some talk slow, some tend to mumble.
To get the captions up on your TV screen, stenographers like Mahoney use a special keyboard that utilizes phonetics, allowing them to form words quickly based on sounds rather than typing out individual letters. Also handy, the software Janet uses comes equipped with special dictionaries for each type of broadcast event. For the Super Bowl, Janet will rely on her football dictionary, but she also has a news dictionary for when she’s captioning breaking news or a special report.
“There are so many possible topics of conversation in a 4-hour football game,” said Tim Alves, the Manager for Media Access Technical Services here at WGBH who will be overseeing MAG’s Super Bowl coverage on Sunday, which also includes the musical halftime show. “I’m confident in our team’s ability to caption whatever comes our way.”
When the Super Bowl ends, the night is not over for MAG. The team also captions the late night television shows for a variety of networks, some of which air live immediately following the game. But, despite the large viewership numbers, this Sunday will be fairly routine for MAG, which has provided captioning for nationally-televised shows and live broadcast events for more than 45 years, including the Grammys, Tony Awards, Country Music Awards, and even presidential inaugurations. With a staff member at their office for 21 hours a day, every day, MAG remains at the ready to keep up with captioning all of their client’s broadcast programming.
“I’m very proud of all of the work we do here at MAG, not only with the Super Bowl but on all of our programs,” said Alison Godburn, Managing Director, Media Access Group and PMM Technical Sales. “This work underscores our mission here at WGBH of making media accessible to all.”
Few captioning agencies in the country are as well-positioned as MAG, by having an in-house stenographer in addition to the technical support of WGBH. In addition to captioning, MAG provides Descriptive Video Service (DVS) for audiences who are blind or low vision, which describes important visual elements in a program. And reflecting a friendly version of this Super Bowl’s matchup of the New England Patriots vs. the Los Angeles Rams, all of this DVS work is done in partnership with MAG’s second office–in Los Angeles.
As you settle into your own couch to watch Super Bowl LIII this Sunday, turn on the captions to see the work of the specialists who are working hard to ensure that this cultural moment is accessible to all.