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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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Randolph (D. W. Va.) and ten of his colleagues to sponsor a resolution strongly urging use of the new captioning system.[*] Randolph explained that it would be “tragic and highly discriminatory to continue to exclude deaf and hearing impaired Americans from full enjoyment of television,” especially given how modest the costs of captioning were.14 Pressure on the FCC intensified when only three weeks later, President Gerald Ford also released a statement in support of the new PBS system.15

On December 8, 1976, the FCC finally amended its rules to authorize broadcasters to voluntarily use line 21 technology for closed captions.16 But the Commission was still a long way from mandates that would require captions. Indeed, the FCC had addressed this issue just three months before, when it amended its rules to require visual access to all televised emergency announcements.17 Then, as now, the Commission concluded that because the best technical and financial procedures for making television accessible remained uncertain, it was best to allow broadcasters to decide for themselves whether and how to caption their programs.18

Of all of the networks, CBS remained the most resistant to using the line 21 technology. The network was more interested in promoting “Teletext,” an alternative system that, like captioning, transmitted words and graphics simultaneously with the television picture, but also allowed text to appear in different colors, speeds, and sizes, and could be used to convey other kinds of information, including news, sports, and airline schedules.19 CBS believed that the many uses of Teletext, already available in France and England and under development in Australia and Japan, made this system more appealing to the general population than line 21, which seemed to focus more on only providing access for the deaf community.

CBS’s stance on line 21 was especially disappointing given the network’s concession to the deaf community two years earlier. In 1975, CBS had been pushed into open captioning an airing of the sitcom Good Times because it featured a deaf character. Once the network made the decision to go ahead with a captioned version, it publicized the show’s broadcast, along with the captioning, to approximately 200 television stations and 1,800 major newspapers, and agreed to help deaf leaders make appearances on talk shows for this purpose.20 Now, however, CBS’s ongoing refusal to use the dominant captioning system was calling into question the sincerity of its prior actions. In a letter to CBS, PBS President Lawrence Grossman expressed his considerable frustration with the network. Grossman charged CBS with overreporting captioning costs: the network’s estimate of seventy-six man hours to caption a program, he said, was about 400 percent too high and its per broadcaster investment of $250,000 was “off-the-wall!” He implored CBS, as well as the other public and commercial broadcasters to be more cooperative in efforts to bring television to the deaf community.21

Fortunately, CBS’s (and, to a lesser extent the other commercial networks’) initial reluctance to use line 21 did not stop PBS from moving ahead with its plans for the development of home captioning decoders. In 1977, PBS awarded a contract to Texas Instruments for the development and manufacture of a marketable decoder, and to EEG Enterprises and others for the development of broadcast encoding and decoding equipment. Ultimately, Sanyo Electric Corporation agreed to manufacture the decoders in their Arkansas factories, and Sears, Roebuck, and Company agreed to market, sell, and service the equipment. With FCC authority for line 21 firmly secured and the Department of Education poised to grant funding for closed captioning, the only issue that remained was who would handle the expected increase in demands for closed captioning.

PBS seemed the logical choice to handle the new responsibility, given its invention of the captioning prototype and The Caption Center’s status as the nation’s leader in open captioning for the past six years. But while The Caption Center was very eager to take on this task, some questioned whether PBS had either the facilities or the staff to handle the anticipated programming load. Moreover, commercial networks such as ABC were beginning to express reluctance about having PBS or WGBH, a PBS station, ABC’s broadcast competitors, handle their captioning needs; they preferred to have a separate, nonprofit company take on this responsibility. To resolve these issues, PBS hired Arnold and Porter, a Washington, D.C., law firm, to develop a blueprint for captioning’s future.

* The other senators joining Senate Resolution 573 were: Percy, Javits, Leahy, Beall, Dole, Durkin, Kennedy, Pell, Schweiker, and Taft.
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