The History of Closed Captions Part 1: The Birth and Evolution of Closed Captions

Rheannon Ketover

Unlocking the World of Audiovisual Content: The Captivating Story of Captions

Since the inception of cinema, the power of visual storytelling has captivated audiences around the world. However, for individuals with hearing impairments, accessing the auditory aspects of films and television programming has been a significant challenge. The birth of captions revolutionized the way people with hearing impairments engage with audiovisual content, opening the doors to inclusivity and equal access. In this comprehensive blog post, we embark on a journey through the history of captions, tracing their evolution from the early days of intertitles to the groundbreaking development of closed captioning. Join us as we explore the technological breakthroughs, pioneering efforts, and the profound impact of closed captioning on accessibility and the world of entertainment.

  • Part 1 (1940 - 1980) - The Birth and Evolution of Closed Captions
  • Section 1: The Birth of Captions: From Intertitles to Early Attempts at Accessibility
  • Section 2: Technological Breakthrough: Paving the Way for Closed Captioning in Television Programming
  • Section 3: The First Shows to Be Captioned: Pioneering Accessible Programming
  • Part 2 (1980 - Present) -  Empowering Access and Advancing Inclusivity
  • Section 4: Real-Time Captioning: Empowering Live Broadcasts
  • Section 5: The Impact of Accessibility Laws: Ensuring Equal Access
  • Section 6: The Future of Closed Captioning: Advancing Accessibility
  • Conclusion: Celebrating Inclusivity Through Captions

From the humble beginnings of intertitles to the sophistication of closed captioning technology, the journey of captions has transformed the landscape of audiovisual content. Captions have not only empowered individuals with hearing impairments but have also enriched the viewing experience for all audiences. By delving into the past, present, and future of closed captioning, we aim to celebrate the triumph of inclusivity and highlight the ongoing efforts to break down barriers in the world of entertainment. Join us as we unravel the captivating story of captions, a story that continues to shape a more accessible and inclusive media landscape.

Part 1 (1940 -1980) - The Birth and Evolution of Closed Captions

Section 1 - The Birth of Captions: From Intertitles to Early Attempts at Accessibility 

Before the advent of closed captioning, there was another form of text-based representation in the early days of cinema known as intertitles. Intertitles were static text screens inserted between scenes or shots to provide dialogue, narrative context, or commentary. Although intertitles served a crucial role in conveying information, they were limited to silent films and did not cater specifically to individuals with hearing impairments.

The need for captions that accompanied spoken dialogue arose with the emergence of sound in films. In 1927, the groundbreaking film "The Jazz Singer" became the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized sound. While this technological advancement marked a significant milestone in cinema history, it presented a challenge for individuals who were deaf or hard of hearing. To address this accessibility gap, early attempts at incorporating captions into films began to surface. 

The Pioneers of Captioning

In the late 1940s, a deaf man named Emerson Romero, cousin of the famous actor Cesar Romero, embarked on a journey to bring Hollywood back into the deaf community. Romero, who had acted in films during the silent movie era, experimented with limited technology to find a way to make movies accessible. He spliced text between frames, reminiscent of the intertitles used in silent films, and circulated his efforts among deaf clubs and schools.

Around the same time, J. Arthur Rank, a prominent movie mogul, made an attempt at captioning by etching captions onto pieces of glass and projecting them on a separate screen. Although the deaf community showed great interest in the captioned film Rank produced, the method was impractical and never gained traction.

Another significant figure in the early history of captions was Dr. Edmund Burke Boatner, superintendent of the American School for the Deaf. Inspired by the baffled reactions of deaf students watching movies without captions, Boatner set out to find a solution. He discovered a short captioned film made by Dr. Ross Hamilton, which used glass slides displayed on a smaller screen. Although this method had its limitations, it sparked collaboration between Boatner and Hamilton to find a better way to provide captioned movies.

In Belgium, a company developed a new method of captioning films by directly printing captions onto a master copy of the film, resulting in open captions without the black box. A New York company leased this process and later, J. Pierre Rakow, a vocational teacher at the American School for the Deaf, played a crucial role in persuading the company to caption films for the deaf.

With a practical method of captioning established, Boatner and his collaborator, Dr. Clarence O'Connor, organized and incorporated Captioned Films for the Deaf (CFD). However, CFD faced challenges as they had no films or funds to obtain them. They sought outside donations and assembled a board of directors with notable names from Hollywood.

The Junior League of Hartford (JLH) provided the first substantial funding to CFD, and their efforts to transcribe captions from Hollywood scripts played a vital role. The first captioned CFD film shown in the United States was "America the Beautiful," which was met with great success and emotional reactions from the deaf audience.

In the following years, CFD struggled to secure films and caption them due to limited funds. However, Graham Anthony, a CFD board member, played a key role in securing federal legislation and funding for captioned movies. With the support of Mary Switzer, director of the vocational rehabilitation division of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and U.S. Senator William Purtell of Connecticut, a bill was introduced and passed, establishing federal funding for captioned movies for the deaf.

After the passage of the legislation, Boatner and O'Connor withdrew from CFD, and Dr. John Gough was selected to lead the new federal program. The program operated under the name Captioned Films for the Deaf and received an annual funding of $78,000. Dr. Malcolm "Mac" Norwood, the first deaf project officer, played a crucial role in providing expertise and leadership.

Initially, the federal program could only obtain and caption feature films, leaving a gap in captioned educational films. Boatner, O'Connor, Gough, and Norwood recognized this need and strived to make educational films accessible as well. In 1960, the first captioned educational film, "Rockets - How They Work," was released through the program.

The Captioned Films Act was modified in 1962, allowing for the expansion of the federal program beyond feature films. This change enabled the program to acquire and caption a broader range of educational films, including documentaries and instructional materials. As a result, deaf students gained access to a wider array of educational resources.

During this period, technological advancements played a significant role in improving captioning techniques. The emergence of magnetic soundtracks on 16mm films allowed for more precise synchronization of captions with the audio. This development marked a substantial improvement over the earlier methods of manually splicing captions into the film.

By 1964, Captioned Films for the Deaf had made substantial progress in making movies and educational films accessible to the deaf community. The program was able to distribute films nationwide, reaching schools, deaf clubs, and other institutions. Captioned films became an integral part of deaf education and provided a valuable resource for deaf individuals to enjoy movies and other visual media.

An early attempt at captions for television was the introduction of open captions, beginning in 1972 with PBS’s “The French Chef”. Open captions were permanently imprinted onto the film itself, meaning that every copy of the film would display the captions during projection. This method allowed for wider accessibility, as the captions were visible to all viewers. However, it also posed limitations, as the captions were fixed and could not be customized or turned off, potentially impacting the overall cinematic experience for some viewers.

Despite these early efforts, a more refined and accessible solution was yet to emerge. The true birth of closed captioning as we know it today came with the convergence of technology and a growing recognition of the importance of inclusivity.

Section 2 - The Technological Breakthrough: Line 21 Encoding

The inception of closed captioning can be attributed to groundbreaking technological advancements. One such breakthrough was the development of line 21 encoding, a method that revolutionized closed captioning during the transition from analog to digital broadcasting.

Line 21 encoding was a method that allocated the 21st horizontal line of the television frame to carry captioning data. This specific line was chosen because it was outside the active picture area and did not interfere with the regular broadcast signal. Television sets equipped with closed captioning decoders could then interpret and display the captioning data carried on line 21.

The introduction of line 21 encoding in 1973 laid the foundation for a standardized approach to closed captioning, ensuring compatibility across television sets and broadcasts. This technological advancement allowed viewers to access closed captions by simply enabling the closed captioning feature on their television sets.

Line 21 encoding brought about several improvements in closed captioning. It enabled more precise synchronization between the captions and the corresponding audio, ensuring that viewers with hearing impairments could follow the dialogue accurately. It also allowed for increased flexibility in caption styling, including font size, color, and positioning on the screen. These enhancements made closed captions more visually appealing and easier to read, further enhancing the accessibility of television programming.

Furthermore, line 21 encoding facilitated closed captioning for a wide range of television content, including live broadcasts, prerecorded shows, and other video material. It became a universal standard that enabled consistent delivery of closed captions across various television networks and broadcasts.

Behind the scenes, the efforts of Mac Norwood and the Media Services and Captioned Films for the Deaf (MSCFD) played a crucial role in funding and supporting closed captioning projects. The First National Conference on Television for the Hearing-Impaired in 1971 was a significant event, bringing together major TV networks, federal agencies, and stakeholders to discuss the captioning of television. It served as a catalyst for serious discussions, addressing the needs of consumers and exploring available technology.

Following the conference, a meeting was arranged in 1972 between staff from the MSCFD and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). This meeting resulted in the creation of a detailed blueprint for bringing captioning to television. With funding increased to thirteen million per year, PBS, with its strong educational background and support from Mac Norwood and the MSCFD, was chosen to run the first "trial" captioned TV programs.

The initial trial programs aired on PBS's Boston affiliate, WGBH, featuring an open-captioned episode of "The French Chef" and an episode of "The Mod Squad" in 1972. These programs showcased the potential and feasibility of captioning as an accessibility tool. However, to address the reluctance of major networks to extensively open caption their programs, a new technical breakthrough was needed.

As an interim solution, PBS began regularly rebroadcasting ABC News programs with open captions in 1973. Nonetheless, the quest for a more comprehensive and widely accepted captioning solution continued. PBS, alongside the Captioned Films & Telecommunications branch (CF&T), dedicated the next eight years to developing closed-captioning technology. Through extensive research and testing, they evaluated two competing closed-captioning techniques: the familiar Line 21 technique developed by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) and a system that broadcast captions off the edge of the screen. After careful evaluation, PBS staff chose the Line 21 technique, which remains in use today.

Securing network support for closed captioning proved challenging, primarily due to the cost considerations. After extensive discussions, ABC proposed the idea of a nonprofit, freestanding captioning institute to share the cost of captioning with the government. This concept led to the establishment of the National Captioning Institute (NCI) in 1979, announced by the Secretary for HEW. With the establishment of the NCI, the final piece for ensuring access to television for the deaf community fell into place.

Section 3 - Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Arrival of Closed Captions on TV

In the early 1980s, a significant breakthrough occurred in the realm of television accessibility. After years of technological advancements and advocacy efforts, closed captions made their official debut on American television screens, marking a milestone in media inclusivity.

On March 16, 1980, the National Captioning Institute (NCI) shattered the barriers of silence by introducing the first closed-captioned prerecorded television programs. Viewers were finally able to enjoy popular shows with synchronized captions, enhancing their understanding and enjoyment of the content. On that memorable day, viewers across the nation experienced the joy and empowerment of watching television shows with closed captions. Programs such as Disney's "Son of Flubber" on NBC, the ABC Sunday Night Movie "Semi-Tough," and PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" became the first to feature regularly scheduled closed captioning. 

To access the closed captions, viewers needed a decoder box, which was a device designed to decode the captioning information embedded in the broadcast signal. One such decoder, the Telecaption adapter, was developed and sold by Sears for $250. This innovation allowed individuals to connect the decoding unit to their standard television sets, enabling them to see the captions alongside the program.

The significance of this advancement cannot be overstated. For the first time, individuals with hearing impairments had equal access to television programming, breaking down barriers to information and entertainment. The introduction of closed captions on these popular shows demonstrated the commitment of networks like NBC, ABC, and PBS to embrace accessibility and inclusivity.

It marked the official beginning of the closed-captioning era, symbolizing the culmination of years of dedication and perseverance by Dr. Edmund Boatner and countless advocates for accessible media. These shows brought a new level of accessibility and inclusivity to television, creating opportunities for individuals with hearing impairments to fully engage with their favorite programs. 

The inclusion of closed captions on these widely watched shows marked a transformative moment in the history of television. It exemplified a commitment to equal access and paved the way for further advancements in closed-captioning technology and legislation. The impact of closed captions extended far beyond entertainment, enabling individuals with hearing impairments to stay informed, engage in cultural conversations, and enhance their media literacy.

As we reflect on the significance of closed captions' arrival on TV screens, we can appreciate the transformative power they hold. The birth of closed captions marked the beginning of a new chapter in media history, one that celebrates inclusivity, empowers individuals with hearing impairments, and fosters a more accessible and inclusive media landscape. In Part 2 of this blog post, we will delve deeper into the advancements and impact of closed captioning, exploring real-time captioning, the influence of accessibility laws, and the future of closed captions. Join us as we continue to celebrate the triumphs of inclusivity through captions.

Head over to Part 2 here.


The National Captioning Institute, History of Closed Captioning

AcuTrans, The History of Closed Captioning

The National Captioning Institute, Captioning Firsts

Described and Captioned Media Program, “How Bird Hunting in North Carolina Saved Captioning”

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010

The Washington Post, “More cities are requiring captions on public TVs. Here’s why that matters,” Marisa Iati.

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