Closed captioning is the most important
development in this century for bringing deaf and hard of hearing people
into the mainstream. The closed captioning service officially started
in March 1980, but many years of development had to happen before it
became a reality.
The first innovators were not thinking about a captioning
system for deaf and hard of hearing people. In 1970 the National Bureau
of Standards began to investigate the possibility of using a portion
of the network television signal to send precise time information on
a nationwide basis. The Bureau believed that it could send digitally
encoded information in a part of the television signal not used for
picture information. The ABC-TV network agreed to cooperate. This project
didn't work, but ABC suggested that it might be possible to send captions
This led to a preview of captioning at the First National
Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired in Nashville, Tennessee
in 1971. Two possible technologies for captioning television programs
were demonstrated that would display the captions only on specially
equipped sets for deaf and hard of hearing viewers.
A second demonstration of closed captioning was held at
Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) on February 15, 1972. ABC
and the National Bureau of Standards presented closed captions embedded
within the normal broadcast of Mod Squad.
As a result of the enthusiasm these demonstrations created
in the deaf and hard of hearing community, the National Association
of Broadcasters studied the technical and economic factors involved
in establishing a captioning service. The Association concluded that
this captioning system was technically possible, but certain steps had
to be taken before it could become a reality. The federal government
agreed to fund the development and testing. The engineering department
of the Public Broadcasting System started to work on the project in
1973 under contract to the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped of
the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).
While the closed captioning service was being developed,
there were some programs with "open" captions airing on PBS. In 1972,
The French Chef became the very first television program that was accessible
to deaf and hard of hearing viewers. The ABC News was rebroadcast on
PBS five hours after its broadcast on ABC-TV. From the time The Captioned
ABC News was first produced in 1973, it was the only timely newscast
accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people until NCI's real-time
captioning service started in 1982.
A problem that soon became evident with The Captioned
ABC News program rebroadcast on PBS was that it competed with its own
affiliates' 11:00 p.m. local news. This meant that PBS stations in most
areas had to broadcast The Captioned ABC News at 11:30 p.m. or early
the next morning at 6:30 a.m.
The closed captioning system was successfully tested that
same year with the cooperation of Washington's public television station,
WETA. It was here that captions were encoded and broadcast for the first
time using line 21 of the television signal. As a result of these tests,
the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1976 set aside line 21
for the transmission of closed captions in the United States. Once the
Commission gave its approval, PBS engineers developed the caption editing
consoles that would be used to caption prerecorded programs, the encoding
equipment that broadcasters and others would use to add captions to
their programs, and prototype decoders.
Toward the end of the technical development project at
PBS, it became clear that in order to get the cooperation of the commercial
television networks, it would be necessary to establish a nonprofit,
single-purpose organization to perform this captioning. And so in 1979,
HEW announced the creation of the National Captioning Institute. The
mission and importance of NCI was clear from the beginning. It was to
promote and provide access to television programs for the deaf and hard
of hearing community through the technology of closed captioning.
On March 16, 1980, NCI broadcast the first closed-captioned
television series. The captions were seen in households that had the
first generation of closed caption decoders. A silence had been broken.
For the first time ever, deaf
people across America could turn on their television sets-with a caption
decoder-and finally understand what they had been missing on television.
The closed-captioned television service was an overnight
sensation. Suddenly, thousands of people who had been living in a world
of silence could enjoy television programs along with hearing people.
NCI had truly brought them words worth watching. With this success,
it was only natural that captioned television viewers would want more
accessible programming like prime-time series, soap operas, talk shows,
game shows, sports, children's programming, cartoons, and home videos--the
same rich and wide variety of programming that hearing people take for
granted. They wanted instant access to live programs such as national
and local newscasts.
In 1982, NCI developed real-time captioning, a process
for captioning newscasts, sports events, specials or other live broadcasts
as the events are being televised. In real-time captioning, court reporters
who have been trained as real-time captioners type at speeds of over
225 words per minute to give viewers instantaneous access to live news,
sports and information. As a result, the viewer at home sees the captions
within two to three seconds of the words being spoken.
In addition to a wide variety of captioned TV programs,
viewers also can enjoy their favorite releases on home video. In 1980,
there were only three-captioned home video titles. Today, deaf viewers
can routinely expect new home video releases on VHS and DVD to be captioned.
NCI ensured a bright future for captioned television by
partnering with ITT Corporation to develop the first caption-decoding
microchip that could be built directly into new television sets at the
manufacturing stage. This led to the introduction and subsequent passage
of the Television Decoder Circuitry Act in 1990, which mandated that,
by mid-1993, all new television sets 13 inches or larger manufactured
for sale in the U.S. must contain caption-decoding technology. Now,
millions of people have access to captions with the push of a button
on their remote controls.
Also in 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
was passed to ensure equal opportunity for persons with disabilities.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in
employment, State and local government services, businesses that are
public accommodations or commercial facilities, and in transportation.
Title III of the ADA requires that public facilities, such as hospitals,
bars, shopping centers and museums (but not movie theaters), provide
access to verbal information on televisions, films or slide shows. Captioning
is considered one way of making such information available to people
who are deaf or hard of hearing. Federally funded public service announcements
also must be captioned.
The U.S. Congress continued to show its support of closed
captioning by passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996. To implement
the closed captioning requirements included in the Act, the FCC established
rules and implementation schedules for the captioning of television
programming. The rules went into effect on January 1, 1998 and established
an eight-year transition period for new programming at which time 100%
of non-exempt new programs must be captioned. A ten-year transition
period was established for programs that originally aired prior to 1998
with a requirement of 75% captioning by the end of the ten years. An
implementation schedule was also established for the captioning of Spanish-language
The present and beyond
With the next generations of digital and high-definition
television broadcasting standards (SDTV and HDTV) on the horizon, NCI
is already at work to ensure that captions will be of equally high quality
on the televisions of the future. NCI is currently involved in committee
activities to develop future captioning technologies. NCI personnel
participate in the Television Data System Subcommittee of the Electronic
Industries Association and the working group developing standards for
future broadcast systems.
Closed captioning has grown from a little-known service
for people who are deaf to a truly global communications service that
touches the lives of millions of people every day. Because of the efforts
of NCI, the television industry, the federal government and so many
others, people who are deaf or hard of hearing will never again be isolated