Deaf History - History of Closed Captioning

What We Now Take for Granted

Silhouette Of Boy In Front Of Television Screen
History of Closed Captioning. Ra?l V?zquez / EyeEm / Getty Images

The earliest days of captioning on television meant open captioning, with the words printed directly on the screen. Open captioning began with the French Chef on PBS (1972). It was soon followed by other programs including:

  • Captioned ABC World News Tonight
  • Zoom
  • Once Upon a Classic

These early programs were captioned by the WGBH Caption Center. However, open captioning was reportedly not well accepted by the hearing community and this led to the development of closed captioning. Closed captions are broadcast on line 21 of the vertical blanking interval, and are not visible unless decoding circuitry is utilized. (The use of Line 21 for closed captions was approved in 1976 by the Federal Communications Commission).

Beginning of Closed Captioning

I found out through a small notice in my local newspaper that the government had established a nonprofit National Captioning Institute that would sell special decoders for closed captioning, and that closed captioning would begin in 1980. A new National Captioning Institute had been set up to avoid the potential conflict of having PBS through the WGBH Caption Center, provide captioning services for other networks. I immediately began saving all of my money for a decoder. I still remember the trip to Sears to pick up my first decoder, and my excitement in March 1980 as I watched my first closed captioned program, an episode of Barney Miller, on a small black and white tv set.

Closed captioning of television grew, but not enough to satisfy deaf people. The problem was a classic chicken and egg situation whereas broadcasters did not want to caption more unless more decoders were sold and many people with hearing loss did not want to buy decoders until more captioned programming was available. In fact, as I learned later, more decoders were actually being bought by hearing people, especially people learning English as a second language, who found they could benefit from the captions, than by deaf people themselves. Several factors kept decoder sales low: cost, limited availability, and not least, the reluctance of hard of hearing people to reveal their hearing loss by having a decoder attached to their television set.

Politics of Closed Captioning

The early history of closed captioning was also fraught with political overtones. CBS initially did not participate because CBS wanted to use teletext technology instead of line 21 captioning. This resulted in active protest against CBS by the deaf community. I still remember participating in one protest as an NTID student in the early 80s, when groups of NTID students were bused to downtown Rochester so they could join in the protest at the local CBS station. By 1984, CBS surrendered and agreed to broadcast captions on line 21 (and teletext died soon after).

Home Video Captioning Battle

Home videotapes appeared with captions, but the selection was woefully limited. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, deaf people including myself began to protest. Going to Blockbuster video was an ordeal in frustration. I became involved with a movement begun by Stuart Gopen and Andrea Shettle, to get more captions on home videotapes. I dubbed the movement "Caption Action." The Caption Action movement succeeded in getting closed captions on many videos, including the Star Trek series, and Republic Home Video's Little Rascals series. Caption Action worked hard to send the message to home video companies that although captions on home video are voluntary, the deaf community expected and would demand captions!

One highlight of Caption Action was when I paid to put a press release on the wire services, and it was picked up by Variety. Perhaps the most exciting moment I had was when I received a letter from an executive at Republic Pictures Home Video informing me that they would begin captioning. They had long resisted captioning until I took the step of writing to the late Spanky McFarland of Little Rascals fame. Mr. McFarland contacted Republic, and the rest was history. (If Spanky McFarland had not done so, my next step would have been to track down and contact Jackie Cooper).

After the success with Republic, the deaf community begged me to take on the Star Trek videos. To get the Star Trek videos captioned, I enlisted the support of the hearing Star Trek fan community, writing to leaders of fan clubs, posting on internet message boards, etc.

Government Captioning Legislation Battle

By the late '80s, the growth of cable television meant a huge amount of programming was not accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. Finally, the government recognized the need for legislation to speed things up and mandated that all television screens 13 inches or larger have built-in closed caption decoding circuitry. This legislation was the historic Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990. At last, we would be freed from the decoders and the chicken and egg problem would be solved.

Getting this legislation passed was not quite a cakewalk, but close. There was opposition from a certain professional association. I got ahold of a copy of the actual Capitol Hill testimony by a representative of this association. A friend and I drafted a letter blasting this representative's testimony and faxed it to the association. Next thing we knew, the representative was no longer working for that association.

Televisions containing the mandatory circuitry went on sale in 1993, and not a moment too soon - only about 400,000 decoders total had been sold by 1992. This increase in caption-decoding televisions was still not enough to generate a huge increase in captioning availability. One reason was because captioning was still a voluntary activity, which often caused broadcasters to view it as something charitable which should be paid for by outside sources instead of simply treating it as another cost of business. In response, Congress in 1996 passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which mandated closed captioning on television. This act has helped to spur rapid growth in the closed captioning industry. While not everything on television is captioned, we have come a long way from the first 15 hours a week of captioned programming in 1980.

The captioning industry's growth is reflected in the website I started in 1995, Closed Captioning Web. While initially an all-purpose website, it has become primarily a resource for finding captioning services, and for finding jobs in the captioning industry.

The Future of Captioning

What does the future hold? As of now, research and development of voice recognition technology continues and one day, it may replace captioning as we know it today. Until then, the captioning industry continues to expand to meet the demand fueled by legislation.