History of Closed Captioning

Silhouette Of Boy In Front Of Television Screen

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​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

Small notices went into local newspapers 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.

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, 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. 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 began to protest. Going to Blockbuster video was an ordeal in frustration. A movement began by Stuart Gopen and Andrea Shettle to get more captions on home videotapes. 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.

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. After getting a copy of the actual Capitol Hill testimony by a representative of this association, a letter was drafted blasting the representative's testimony and faxed to the association. The representative was quickly released.

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 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 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.

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