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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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In June 1978, Arnold and Porter delivered two recommendations.22 First, in order to minimize resistance to captioning by commercial networks, a new, nonprofit captioning operation would be established to handle captioning for both commercial and public television programs. Second, to reduce costs, captioning would be carried out in two locations—one in the east for programming produced by public television stations, and one in the west for Hollywood programming. Although The Caption Center feared that the new proposals would essentially write it out of the captioning picture, an overriding interest in ending divisiveness among the networks and reducing captioning expenses prompted Congress to accept the recommendations.

In 1979, Congress authorized HEW to create the National Captioning Institute (NCI), a nonprofit corporation, with six million dollars in start-up funds. All patents and rights to the captioning technology were transferred exclusively to NCI, which was to build two centers, one in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and one in Los Angeles. The plan was for NCI to jumpstart the provision of television captioning with federal funding for the first few years, which would be supplemented by financial contributions from major networks, private foundations, television program sponsors, and proceeds from decoder sales.23 Over time, the federal funding would be phased out, to allow captioning to become a self-sustaining operation.[*]

Closed Captioning Gets Underway

On April 5, 1979, the FCC held a public meeting to review the impact of its 1976 decision to authorize use of line 21.24 Shortly after the FCC hearings, NCI, ABC, NBC, and PBS reached an agreement for the three networks to provide sixteen to twenty hours of closed captioned programming each week, later broken down into five hours each for ABC and NBC, and twelve and a half hours for PBS. The agreement also called for Sears to oversee the production and sale of decoders. Still adamant that its Teletext system was preferable, CBS refused to be a part of the deal, concluding that it would be unfair to the deaf community to promote the purchase of soon-to-be obsolete decoder equipment.

On March 15, 1980, the Sears catalog began selling two types of “Telecaption” decoders: an “adapter unit” for $249 that connected to a regular television set, and an “integrated TV receiver,” built into a nineteen-inch color set and sold as a single unit for approximately $500. Nonprofit groups engaged in impressive efforts to publicize the new devices: NCI distributed hundreds of thousands of brochures announcing the devices’ availability to national organizations, schools, clubs, and churches. The National Retired Teachers Association/American Association of Retired People (AARP) reached millions of members through its newsletters. The National PTA, acknowledging the benefits of captioning as a tool for teaching children with learning disabilities, sent out 28,000 mailings to local chapters. And the Lions Club distributed NCI’s brochures with community activity guides that offered recommendations on how to encourage decoder sales and captioning use to 16,000 of its local affiliates.25

During the week of March 16, 1980, television witnessed its first closed captioned broadcasts with ABC’s Sunday Night Movie and Barney Miller; NBC’s Monday and Friday night movies and The Wonderful World of Disney; and PBS’s Mystery! and 3-2-1 Contact. Initially, decoder sales were brisk. During the first month on the market, enthusiastic consumers purchased 5,000 devices, a figure that jumped to 11,000 over the next two months.26 The thirst for access to television programming was so overwhelming that by June 1980, Sears reported weekly sales of 1,800 decoders.

Commercial sponsors were quick to see a business opportunity in the new viewer market. Business Week reported that Procter & Gamble, IBM, AT&T, and Bristol-Myers were among the many companies “jumping in to use a new technology that lets them heighten the effectiveness of their TV commercials.”27 The magazine described these businesses as being in the “forefront” of a captioning movement that would spread to all major advertisers. According to the Seiko Time Corporation, captioned advertisements commanded the same type of heightened attention received by the first colorized commercials. Some companies zeroed in on the ability of line 21 technology to capture niche audiences. For example, J. Walter Thompson began adding captions to ads for laxatives, antacids, and pain relievers commonly used by

* A November 13, 1979, NCI press release stated, “After 1982, it is expected that NCI will require no further federal monies. The three participating networks will pay NCI a fee, currently set at $2,000 per program hour, for its captioning services.”
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