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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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A New Civil Right: Telecommunications Equality for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans

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would ever turn a profit. A catch-22 followed: the networks became increasingly reluctant to invest money into captioning new shows until they witnessed a growth in decoder sales, while consumers grew progressively more hesitant to spend hundreds of dollars on decoder equipment until broadcasters added more captioned programs.58

In an attempt to break this logjam, NCI embarked on a campaign to both expand decoder purchases and attract new captioning grants from major foundations and corporations.[*] But even more significant were efforts by NCI to expand its audiences through the creation of simultaneous, or “real-time” captioning. A recent NCI survey had revealed that 75 percent of these individuals were more interested in having access to the evening news than any other programming.59 However, up until now, the technology to caption a program simultaneously with its on-the-air broadcast had not yet been developed. Deaf viewers were still relegated to watching captioned ABC newscasts several hours after these were first broadcast to the rest of the United States.

As far back as 1978, HEW had begun to fund research into a method of providing viewers with instantaneous access to live news, sports and other programs. However, initial efforts were slow and so, in 1980, NCI hired Jeff Hutchins to achieve a viable real-time captioning solution. Hutchins in turn contracted with a firm called Translation Systems, Inc., which employed individuals who had successfully developed a means of converting shorthand into printed text during their previous employment with the CIA. Unfortunately, the method they designed relied on a cumbersome mainframe computer and used prepared transcripts, rather than real-time material. In order to effectively add captions to live events as they were being televised, NCI needed a way to directly connect a stenotype machine to a small computer. When, in 1981, computer innovations made this possible, Hutchins hired Martin Block, a court reporter in the Philadelphia courts, and the two finalized the technical specifications and operational practices that finally allowed the live transcription of television dialogue into phonetic symbols at a rate of up to 250 words per minute.60

In April 1982, the Academy Awards on ABC became the first live special ever to have real-time captioning. Block himself provided the captioning, working with a team of assistants who fed him the correct spellings of the award nominees. On October 11, 1982, ABC World News Tonight began live broadcasts with the new technology.61 In the same year, the Sugar Bowl became the nation’s first real-time captioned live sporting event.62

Deaf advocates also did their part to spur the growth of television captioning. In 1981, William Castle of the National Technical Institute of the Deaf, E. C. Merrill Jr. and Merv Garretson of Gallaudet, Al Pimentel of the NAD, and Frank Sullivan of the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf formed a new Ad Hoc Group to Promote Closed Captioned Television. On April 15, 1981, the group extended official thanks to ABC, NBC, PBS, and others in the television industry for their efforts to promote line 21 captioning, and tried to push CBS into joining its competitors.[†] By now, CBS was not only absent from the captioning lineup; it was releasing statements about the future obsolescence of the line 21 system. Consumers feared that CBS’s actions would damage decoder sales, and jeopardize the system’s future by causing other networks to weaken their own captioning commitments.63

The following year, when NBC’s captioning commitment continued to waver, the Lexington School for the Deaf sent several busloads of its students to picket at NBC headquarters in New York City. Phil Bravin, chair of a newly formed NAD TV Access Committee, was also dispatched to represent the deaf community in executive level meetings with NBC. While the dual effort successfully put NBC’s captioning commitment to captioning back on track, similar overtures to CBS were not as successful. After one particularly frustrating three-hour meeting with the CBS President of Affiliate Relations Tony Malara, Bravin left, promising to “see you on the streets of America.”64 Six weeks later, the NAD orchestrated protests of hundreds of deaf captioning activists at more than one hundred CBS affiliates across the country. CBS’s resistance finally gave way: in 1984, the network began dual encoding its programs with both Teletext and line 21 captions.65

* Among other things, NCI asked existing subscribers to its newsletter to share names of individuals who might be interested in purchasing decoders.

† Consumers especially appreciated the efforts of ABC Executive Julius Barnathan, who was widely known to champion the benefits of captioning among his network colleagues. Vera Wells also became known for the support she lent to captioning efforts within NBC.

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