History of Closed Captioning

An Open Book on Closed Captioning…and More!

Today, you can turn on any TV channel, press a button, and instantaneously access closed captioning for virtually any program or commercial advertisement you can imagine. Closed captioning not only includes deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers as full participants in the information age, but its practical value and its audience extends far beyond its historical origins. Today, closed captioning features prominently in public environments and public events, accompanies classroom lectures and web content, and even aids ESL students in learning English. Many everyday home consumers appreciate the widespread availability of captioning, its quality, and its convenience.

That’s where the National Captioning Institute comes in. Before NCI, captioning on television was the exception, not the rule. It took a decade of meticulous research and experimentation to show the way forward, and ultimately, it required the creation of NCI to make the vision of closed captioning a reality. All domestic closed captioning derives from the technologies and the standards established over the years by NCI and its partners, and NCI has always served as the standard bearer of innovation in the industry. It’s no exaggeration to say closed captioning as we know and expect it today would not be possible without NCI.

The Revolution Will Be Televised

In 1970, the National Bureau of Standards joined with ABC-TV in an experiment. The Bureau wanted to use a portion of the network television signal to send precise time information nationwide, digitally encoding this data in a part of the television signal that didn’t carry picture information. Although the Bureau’s project failed, it inspired a breakthrough idea: might it be possible to send captions encoded in the television signal instead?

At the First National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired in 1971, two possible technologies for captioning television programs debuted. Both technologies displayed the captions only on specially equipped sets for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Another demonstration of closed captioning followed 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.” This fantastic achievement proved the technical viability of closed captioning.

The deaf and hard-of-hearing community celebrated these crucial demonstrations, and on the strength of their acclaim, the National Association of Broadcasters deliberated on how to move forward with a true captioning service. The federal government funded further development and testing of this innovative new technology. In 1973, the engineering department of the Public Broadcasting System started the project under contract to the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).

Although closed captioning service was still an experimental technology, programs with “open” captions aired on PBS. In 1972, “The French Chef” made history as the first television program accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. ABC also began rebroadcasting its national news program on PBS five hours after its broadcast on ABC-TV. When “The Captioned ABC News” began in 1973, it offered the only timely newscast accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, and it would remain so for nearly a decade.

Washington’s public television station, WETA, successfully tested the closed captioning system in 1973 using line 21 of the television signal. Galvanized by these successful tests, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved line 21 for the transmission of closed captions in the United States in 1976. With the FCC’s approval, PBS engineers innovated 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.

In the final developmental stages at PBS, participants realized that securing the cooperation of commercial television networks required a nonprofit, single-purpose organization with a specific mission to perform this captioning. And so in 1979, HEW inaugurated the National Captioning Institute. NCI’s mandate: to promote and provide access to television programs for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community through closed captioning technology. The accomplishments of the new nonprofit would prove even more transformative than anyone could have imagined.

Words Worth Watching

On March 16, 1980, NCI broke through barriers of silence with the first closed-captioned television series. Households that acquired the first generation of closed caption decoders enjoyed a front-row seat to a new world. 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. NCI developed offline captioning to provide viewers carefully researched and meticulously-timed captions for prerecorded broadcasts and on home video. In 1980, there were only three captioned home video titles. Today, closed captions and subtitles are standard across the spectrum of home media, including virtual formats like online and digital media.

The closed-captioned television service caused an overnight sensation. Suddenly, everyone who had been shut out from the world of broadcast media could enjoy television programs along with hearing people. NCI had truly brought them “words worth watching.” Television viewers looked forward to even more accessible programming, including 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. And thanks to another NCI innovation, they would get exactly what they were asking for.

In 1982, NCI developed real-time captioning, a process for captioning newscasts, sports events, and other live broadcasts as the events are being televised, thereby bringing thousands of households into national conversations in a way that had previously been impossible. In real-time captioning, stenographers who have been trained as captioners type at speeds of up to 250 words per minute to give viewers instantaneous access to live news, sports, and information. The viewer sees the captions within two to three seconds of the words being spoken, formatted with correct punctuation and extreme fidelity to the audible information.

Setting the Standards For an Industry

With new technologies and methodologies in development, NCI focused on how to make the technology as widespread as the audience. NCI partnered with ITT Corporation to develop the first caption-decoding microchip. This chip could be built directly into new television sets in the factory, and it led to the passage of the Television Decoder Circuitry Act in 1990, mandating that all new television sets 13 inches or larger manufactured for sale in the U.S. contain caption-decoding technology.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was another important milestone. 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.

Congress followed the success of the Decoder Circuitry Act with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, requiring that digital television receivers also contain caption-decoding technology. The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 further requires broadcasters to provide captioning for television programs redistributed on the web and for HDTV-decoding boxes to include a button that controls closed captioning in the output signal. On January 13, 2012, the FCC also adopted rules establishing closed captioning requirements for programming delivered through the internet.

Because of this forward-looking legislation, closed captioning access is built into consumer electronics at a level that guarantees its universality.

NCI: The Global Captioning Leader

With the advent of ever expanding technological vistas, NCI pursues the most innovative solutions for a world of limitless possibilities. With its industry partners, NCI will cultivate the next generation of digital and high-definition television broadcasting standards (SDTV and HDTV), including the development of future captioning technologies. NCI personnel participate in the Television Data System Subcommittee of the Electronic Industries Association and the working group developing standards for all future broadcast systems. And NCI continues to tirelessly innovate internally as well. Among its more recent accomplishments, NCI developed the revolutionary Voice Writing methodology and software to increase the growth and flexibility of its valuable service offerings. NCI has also pioneered the Described Video service, for the first time translating visual media into a more accessible format for blind or low-vision consumers. As with the development of closed captioning itself, the potential for these new methodologies to improve the quality of life for millions is exciting.

Closed captioning has grown from an experimental service intended only for people who are deaf to a truly global communications service that touches the lives of millions of people every day in vital ways. Because of the efforts of NCI, the television industry, the federal government, and so many others, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing enjoy ever-expanding access to media and will never again be excluded from the conversation.