Vacationing in the Land of Soap Operas: Bringing Captions to Genoa City and the Forrester Fashion Scene

by: Sarah McPartland

Most of us as children were forced to endure the trials and tribulations of small towns like Genoa City, Wisconsin, or the drama of the Los Angeles fashion industry when visiting with our grandmothers. They would be fixated on the television screen each morning, drinking coffee and explaining that Katherine Chancellor would hold a special place in the hearts of all that knew her long after her death, Eric should never trust his wives around Ridge, and, just when you thought a character died, there was always the potential for a return with a plot twist that no one (everyone!) could predict.

When I first started at VITAC, I didn’t have this experience. My grandmothers both passed away before I entered the soap opera phase of my childhood. Missing out on that rite of passage, I wasn’t prepared for my first experience diving into “The Bold and the Beautiful,” a favorite among the Offline captioning community here at VITAC.

Never in my life have I felt so overwhelmed by such little progress in a storyline. Exactly two things happened, but I got the backstory of 20 years in 19 minutes. I became engulfed in the stories of Steffy and Liam and Katie and Wyatt and Hope and Thomas and Ivy and Ridge and Brooke (and then Bill and Brooke, and then Ridge and Brooke again — it’s difficult to keep up). But with each character added, I yearned for more.

I knew I couldn’t be alone in this sentiment, so I asked around the office. The Offline department at VITAC is full of writers who successfully pursue their passion for the written word outside of work in various mediums, and not one could deny their love for the impeccable storyboarding of Bradley Bell, the show’s executive producer and head writer. You can’t swing a cat without finding someone in this office whose day gets a little brighter when they see an all-expenses paid trip to L.A. in their assignment queue.

The Young and the Restless captionsSince this show is broadcast daily, there is an influx of new episodes on a regular basis, similar to “The Young and the Restless,” which also is prepped in the “roll-up” captioning style and completed by a small group of loyal transcribers. Most soap operas are categorized as full prep with roll-up captioning (captions that scroll up the screen, either from the bottom or the top, one line at a time) provided to the client, encouraging Offline captioners to develop an extensive working knowledge of the relationships, as well as the ever-entwined family trees, to make research a little less daunting. The full prep time required for a broadcast-quality caption file ranges anywhere from two to four hours and sometimes can include extensive research when referencing an individual whose last stint on the show was 15 years ago.

Many television programs exist in their own plane outside of any other story realm. And once you know the residents of the town, unless someone new moves in, you begin to get that small-town feel, like that of Stars Hollow on “Gilmore Girls,” where you know each citizen like the back of your hand and you become a part of their busy lives.

However, prep for “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “The Young and the Restless” differs slightly, as their planes intersect. These programs require a little more research as the B&B’s Forrester family, taking the Los Angeles fashion scene by storm, makes waves that are felt as far away as the Y&R’s Genoa City.

The number of transcribers assigned to work on the show is limited due to the overwhelming research required and muscle memory needed to get the daily program out in a timely fashion. These two programs request IDs for each change of speaker, which can become overwhelming when story lines bow out of the spotlight indefinitely.

Every few weeks, new muscle memory is required to keep up with the ever-changing focus for the weeks ahead. Characters not seen for many moons pop in for a “quick visit” and end up moving in with their volatile ex in a “new-lease-on-life” approach to rekindling their love. But when you get into a routine with soap opera prep, it’s similar to riding a bike in that you’re back in the saddle within a few minutes (or days or weeks or months) after taking hiatus to pursue other ventures (clients). It becomes second nature, and these characters take up space in your memory. They become more than words on a page. You pull for them one moment, despise them the next.

It’s a therapeutic guilty pleasure of this 27-year-old captioner, and I know fellow VITAC Offline captioners who feel the same.

Although there are days where broadcast media can be challenging with pushed-up deadlines and extensive research, soap operas are like the sun peeking through the clouds after a thunderstorm. They’re the cool breeze that blows past you on a day when the heat index is through the roof. They’re an opportunity to check out from the problems facing our world just for a moment, allowing you to submerge yourself in complex love triangles, murder, paternity scandals, and identity crises. They give you something to look forward to when working with tight turnaround times, bad timecodes, or impossible research. They are an escape to small towns where the people are made up and, for a brief instant, the world doesn’t matter.