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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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As the 1980s progressed, the marvelous leadership and enthusiasm of Malcolm Norwood and later Jo Ann McCann at the Department of Education succeeded in significantly expanding program options for caption viewers; by the early- to mid-1980s, a burgeoning market of captioning providers were competing for millions of dollars worth of federal captioning grants. By the spring of 1984, over 80,000 decoders had been purchased, more than 335,000 viewers were using closed captioning, and new caption viewers were being added at an estimated rate of 4,000 each month.66 In October 1984, ABC-TV's World News This Morning became the first daytime television program to be broadcast with captions; a little more than a month later, it was joined by ABC’s Good Morning America.67 In order to accommodate the new viewers, that same fall, Hyatt Hotels become the first national hotel chain to make its in-room televisions captioning accessible.68

The 1984-85 television season brought approximately seventy hours of weekly captioned television programming. This would increase to ninety-four hours the following year, encompassing nearly two-thirds of prime-time broadcast programming. NCI was able to increase captioning of news and public affairs programming alone to twenty hours per week.69 For the first time, the availability of real-time captioning was also providing the deaf and hard of hearing community with live access to presidential political debates and conventions, election night coverage, and major sporting events, including the Summer Olympics.70 Advertisers, aware that more than one-third of all caption viewers switched to brands featured in captioned commercials, brought NCI more than 5,000 commercials during the first four years of its operations.

Notwithstanding the spectacular growth in captioned programs, sales of decoders continued to creep along far below the initial projections of 100,000 per year. In order to expand the number of captioned programs—which would in turn increase decoder purchases—NCI had created a “Caption Club,” through which individual and organizational members could donate money to support captioning. By 1985, the club boasted more than 3,500 members and total contributions of more than $100,000.71

Lagging decoder sales also prompted efforts to ease the financial burden associated with purchasing decoding equipment, including new tax credits and leasing options, the latter made available through cable companies.72 In January of 1986, the TeleCaption II was released, a second generation caption decoder that was smaller, more cable-ready, and equipped with remote controls and other state-of-the-art features. A $1.5 million subsidy from the Department of Education enabled the first 50,000 of these new devices to be sold for only $199.99.73 By now, Sears was no longer the sole player in the decoder business; competition by JC Penny, hearing aid dispensers, and consumer organizations was also helping to bring down retail prices. In the spring of 1986, TDI put the new devices on sale for only $160.74

By 1987, nearly 180 weekly hours of broadcast and premium cable programming were captioned, together with more than 7,000 commercials, produced by over 400 major advertisers.75 In 1988, this figure rose to 200 hours per week, a third generation of new and improved caption decoders—the TeleCaption 3000—was introduced, and closed captions were added to more than 1,000 videotapes. In addition, new competition among captioning providers was now bringing down the costs of these services. Still, the haltingly slow growth in decoder sales raised eyebrows among network executives who, having liberally invested in captioning to widen their audiences, realized that only a limited number of deaf and hard of hearing viewers were receiving access to their programs. Fewer than 200,000 decoders had been purchased during the entire eight-year period that these devices had been on the market.[*]

Many began to grow concerned that the future of captioning was in serious jeopardy. By 1988, the Department of Education had invested more than $45 million into its captioning project and was spending over $6 million each year—or approximately 40 percent of all captioning costs—to support television captioning.76 But with so small a viewing audience, the economic incentives for networks, producers, and advertisers to continue supplementing these funds simply did not exist. By the late 1980s, these investors were feeling that they were putting far more into captioning than they were getting back.

* Changes to the tax code had done little to entice low income and unemployed deaf consumers who were unable to benefit from the credits.
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