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Deaf History - History of Closed Captioning

What We Now Take for Granted


Updated February 26, 2010

Early days

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.
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