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 "Aim 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."