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Caption Action - Grassroots Movement to Increase Closed Captioning

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Updated February 26, 2010

Picture of closed captioning

Closed captioning on a screen

Photo © Flickr user dno1967
Did you know that a deaf grassroots movement is responsible for the fact you have closed captioning on your home video? From about 1988 through 1990, a grassroots movement called Caption Action fought to get closed captions on home video.

Need for Caption Action

Why did we even need a Caption Action in the first place? Caption Action was needed because although there were closed captions on television, closed captioning on home video was -- and still is -- voluntary. There is no legislation requiring closed captioning on home video. That is why you still often find cheap videos with no captions.

Caption Action Begins

Caption Action began in the late 80s when Stuart Gopen, who had a video store and a deaf son, began writing to home video companies asking for captions on videos. Gopen received responses such as "it costs too much to caption" and "we don't hear from deaf people." So he had the idea of launching a petition drive.

Word of Gopen's letter-writing efforts began to spread, starting with an article in the American Society for Deaf Children's newsletter, the Endeavor. When Andrea Shettle saw the article, she wrote to Gopen, and became involved. Together, they decided to launch a petition drive focused on all video companies. Shettle drafted the petition, and was the first one to sign it. She and Gopen worked hard to collect signatures, gathering hundreds. Shettle also wrote a letter to the National Association of the Deaf's Broadcaster newsletter, the publication of which resulted in a few thousand more signatures.

By August 1989 over 1700 signatures were sent to 42 video companies. The result was that Media Home Video, HBO, and MCA all said they would increase or begin captioning. This was the first victory for Caption Action. Shettle sent an announcement, "Attention Caption Lovers!" to several more deaf and hard of hearing publications. One of the publications, Deaf Life, published the announcement and the petition on separate pages in their January 1990 issue. This was the turning point -- after Deaf Life published the petition, thousands of signatures came in.

Caption Action Becomes a Trio

I saw that issue of Deaf Life and contacted Gopen and Shettle, becoming involved overnight. At first, I only wrote to the worst home video companies. I also sat outside a local public library to collect signatures from hearing people, and called my effort "Caption Action." The library efforts yielded almost 500 signatures. I also sent a crude press release to some deaf publications. Then in February 1990, Shettle asked me to take over publicity.

Gopen and Shettle continued to collect signatures while I handled publicity for Caption Action. Shettle and I also teamed up to collect signatures at events like the amusement park King's Dominion's Deaf Awareness Day. I realized we needed a name for the entire movement, and I suggested using "Caption Action." By February 21, 1990, we had over 10,000 signatures, and I sent out the first Caption Action press release.

At the time I was in graduate school studying Public Communication. Caption Action became my graduate school project after my professor overheard me talking about it to someone. To ensure the movement's further success, I applied a formula I had learned in graduate school that was said to guarantee success for any public relations effort.

Caption Action Publicity

Caption Action reached beyond the deaf press (which published many press releases and the petition) to "hearing" media such as Education Week, posted on early internet bulletin boards, and Gopen had publicity in some video trade publications such as Video Store, and Video Software Magazine. Caption Action also reached out to organizations for deaf and hard of hearing people, schools for the deaf, and the general disability community (a key Caption Action supporter, Cheryl Heppner, wrote an article for the The Disability Rag). Plus, I contacted video organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America. In addition, I paid for a public relations newswire to carry a press release. Variety picked it up, publishing it on March 14, 1990.

We wound up with tens of thousands of signatures as the petition drive continued through the scheduled end date of December 31, 1990. As milestones were passed, I sent out fax updates to a press contact list. More home video companies pledged to begin or increase captioning. However, even tens of thousands of signatures was not enough to convince some home video companies that they needed to caption.

Caption Action And Republic

A key holdout was Republic Pictures Home Video. I desperately wanted them to caption because at the time, they had the rights to the Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies. Deaf people's pleas, including mine, to Republic were ignored. It was time for more drastic action. On May 27, 1990 I wrote to Spanky McFarland, who had been one of the Rascals. In July, I received a letter dated July 12, 1990 from Vallery Kountze, a president at Republic Pictures home video informing me that
"Spanky McFarland has forwarded your letter of May 27th to my attention. You will be pleased to know that effective immediately, Republic Pictures Home Video will be closed captioning, through NCI [National Captioning Institute], all new relese contemporary features. In addition, we will begin the process of encoding and remastering a comprehensive selection of Republic's film classics with closed captions. Episodes of THE LITTLE RASCALS are prime candidates for closed captioning and as the effort to caption our film library will be, by nature, a lengthy process, I am unable to advise you of when you may expect to find remastered versions in your store. Your letter, however, has registered an important vote to schedule the captioning of the Rascals 'sooner rather than later.' "
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