A History of Closed Captioning

Closed captioning is the process of displaying text on video, whether it be on a television or on some other type of video display. Closed captioning is essentially a system that transcribes the audio of a program. It has a history dating back to the 1970s and today is essential for those that are deaf or hard of hearing. Prior to the use of closed captioning, open caption was employed. Open caption was an audio transcription that was burned into a video, whereas with the invention of closed captioning, you have the option of viewing it or not.

Open captioning regularly began appearing on broadcasts of The French Chef on PBS in 1972. Shortly after, other stations such as WGBH began following suit. Open captioning eventually led to the technical development of the closed captioning system. It was first displayed at a conference for the hearing impaired that took place in 1971 in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1972, a second demonstration of closed captioning took place at Gallaudet College, now commonly known as Gallaudet University. During this demonstration, the National Bureau of Standards along with ABC showcased closed captioning embedded in a broadcast of The Mod Squad. These demonstrations and research led to the first successfully encoded closed captioning system, broadcast on PBS station WETA. This successful broadcast led the FCC to set aside a specific line of video (line 21 of the VBI) for the transmission of closed captions; which they did in 1976. Engineers at PBS then worked to develop editing consoles that could be used to add captions to prerecorded programs.

In 1982, The National Captioning Institute developed a process for real time captioning, which could be used to caption a live broadcast. Captioning reporters were trained to write more than 200 words per minute, allowing viewers almost instant access to live shows. The National Captioning Institute was founded in 1979 with the intention of getting commercial television networks to cooperate with each other with respect to the implementation of the new technology. With the help of The National Captioning Institute, American television began full scale use of closed captioning. Some of the first programs to be seen with closed captioning were Masterpiece Theater on PBS, and Disney’s Wonderful World: Son of Flubber on NBC.

In 1990, a bill called the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 was passed by congress. This bill was passed in order to allow the Federal Communications Commission to put in place rules on the implementation of closed captioning. The bill called for all analog television receivers manufactured on July 1, 1993, and going forward to have the ability to display closed captioning. The Television Decoder Circuitry Act was a big step in allowing equal opportunity for those with hearing impairments. The bill was passed the same year as The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

As technology continues to improve, so do closed captioning capabilities. There are various datastream formats, and research is ongoing to ensure that closed captioning stays compatible with the latest technologies such as high definition television, 3D television and 4K.

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Sandy Fitzgerald