It may be the most underappreciated and impactful technology in both the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s a technology that is still evolving in its impact. But few would even think of it as a technology. Closed captioning, which opened up access to entertainment for those who are hard of hearing, now has the potential to open up the world to all of us. How did closed captioning come about? That’s a story of technology leading the way.
The technology basis for closed captioning began in the 1920s when the Bell Telephone System pioneered the development of telephone calls to be converted into written messages. When the movie industry included sound, there was a need to include captions with the visual images. It wasn’t until the 1950s that captions were used widely by the movie industry. It took federal legislation to require captioning. Television was slow to accept captioning.
Dr. Malcolm Norwood, who was deaf, held leadership positions in the U.S. Office of Education focused on education for those whose impairments limited their access to education. He led the effort for WGBU in Boston to provide captioning for one episode of Julia Child’s cooking show and a rebroadcast of ABC’s World News Tonight. This was in the early 1970s.
Closed captioning faced a problem in that a decoder was needed so that only those who desired closed captioning could access it. Both the captioning process and the decoders were very expensive. In 1990 the Television Decoder Circuitry Act mandated that all TVs sold in the U.S. have decoders.
The next advance in captioning came with the capability to caption live broadcasts (e.g. press conferences, and sporting events). This required a very special capability similar to what is used to capture courtroom sessions.
With streaming now becoming the way most people watch TV, captioning has opened up the world by making entertainment from other nations available to those who only know one language. Just imagine the cultural understanding that will evolve from being able to see programming from other nations. In addition, closed captioning has now become a way for viewers to acquire language skills. Captioning has essentially become a cultural awareness tool that has the potential to accomplish what schools and colleges are being restricted from teaching. And it’s available in everyone’s living room where politicians have yet to intrude.
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A typist who provides real-time captioning can make over $100,000 a year.