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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 captioned films began taking off in the late 1950s, a far more ground-breaking technology—television—began finding its way into an increasing number of homes across mainstream America. But while new TV newscasts, dramas, and even comedies began to radically alter the way that hearing Americans acquired their information, the absence of television captions kept deaf and hard of hearing individuals from having access to this extraordinary innovation. At the time, all captions were “open,” meaning that they could not be turned on and off by individual viewers. Television network executives and producers vigorously opposed adding such captions to their shows, both because they feared losing viewers who would not want captions, and because they were extremely cautious about tampering with the artistic content of their shows.

As a result of such strong industry resistance to open captions, deaf and hard of hearing people remained without visual access to the audio portion of television programming for nearly two decades. It was not until December 1971 that HEW finally sponsored the first National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired in Nashville, Tennessee, enabling television networks, engineers, educators, producers, advertisers, consumers, and federal agencies to explore strategies for making television visually accessible.5 “Closed” captioning—a new technology that enabled only viewers who wanted to see captions on their television screens to be able to do so—quickly became the focal point of the symposium.

Analog television pictures are comprised of 525 lines; 21 make up the “vertical blanking interval,” or the VBI. Line 21 is the last line of the VBI before the television picture begins. Testing conducted by the National Bureau of Standards revealed that captions—in the form of an electronic code—could be inserted into line 21, and be made viewable through a captioning decoder.6 The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) found the new technique attractive, believing it capable of expanding viewing audiences who needed captions without losing viewers who did not.

Open Captioning Takes Center Stage

However, not everyone believed that open captions would be objectionable to hearing audiences. In fact, in a 1970 study commissioned by HEW, only 10 percent of the members of a hearing audience watching open captioned Disney films reported an unfavorable reaction.7 Norwood was among the many who were unwilling to give up on this form of access, and in the fall of 1971, he arranged for HEW’s Office of Education to contract with Boston’s public television station, WGBH-TV, to produce an open captioned television program. WGBH used the governmental assistance to begin airing open-captioned reruns of its most popular program, The French Chef with Julia Child, on August 6, 1972. Shortly thereafter the station created a new division, The Caption Center, to oversee additional captioned productions that would be funded by HEW.8

As President Richard Nixon’s second inauguration neared, The Caption Center made his inaugural address one of its next open-captioned priorities. The center realized that to achieve this, it would have to prepare and insert captions during the six hours between the time that the address was first aired at noon, and the time that it was rebroadcast at six o’clock p.m. However, there was a potential obstacle: the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the center’s national network distributor, had chosen not to buy into the video “pool” that would have given WGBH the right to air the event.[*] Without this right, WGBH could not rebroadcast the show, with or without open captions.

The NBC producer in charge of the pool explained that although pool rules did not allow him to give WGBH (or PBS) free access to something that PBS had not purchased, because PBS had never been offered the opportunity to buy the video feed only, he could provide that feed to WGBH for free, as long as the station agreed not to broadcast the audio portion. Unfortunately, this too, presented WGBH with a dilemma: under former FCC rules, WGBH still had to fill the audio portion of the president’s event with something that was related to its visual component.9 The station could play


* As a nationally broadcast event, the inauguration was to air via a single video feed to multiple networks. This video pool, from which PBS had excluded itself, eliminated the need for each network to have its own camera and crew at the event.
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