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A Brief History of Captioned Television

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 1970sHourglass - Copyright (c) 2001 Corel Corp. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

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 instead.

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.

The 1980s

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.

The 1990s

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 programming.

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 from television.