Friday, November 29, 2013

Close Captioning's Beginnings

The deaf have benefited greatly from the close captioning of television. I wrote previously about the use of television in a deaf household prior to the 1980s and the limited amount of programming they found worth watching.

For many years the deaf have been able to rent films and although they were American productions and the actors spoke English, they were sub-titled like foreign films so the hearing impaired could enjoy them. Several nonprofit organizations including public libraries rented not only films but projectors and screens for the enjoyment of schools, clubs and deaf individuals.

Around the 1970s, one public television station in Washington (WETA) began adding captions to the daily, ABC Evening News with Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner. They took the 7:00 PM broadcast, added subtitles and rebroadcast it at 11:00 PM for the deaf community in the Washington, D.C. metro area. This was of course a big hit.

Around 1980 or so, many television productions began including close captions with some broadcasts, however users had to buy a set-top decoding device to display the text. Still it was a small price to pay for the American deaf community to finally be able to enjoy some programming, if only limited to certain stations and certain times.

One of the first companies to produce close captioned broadcasts was ABC. They limited content to their prime-time shows which included the memorable, Love Boat, Dallas, Dynasty and Fantasy Island. I went away to college in the Fall of 1979 and shortly after I came home for my first visit, I saw my father watching this stuff. I had been exposed to world literature and philosophers like Karl Marx and Voltaire so I considered myself (perhaps naively) a deep-thinking intellectual. Naturally I couldn't stand to see my father hypnotized by such garbage. It was a reversal of roles that television usually evokes whereby the parents are disgusted with the material their children are exposed to and enthralled by.

When I objected to the stuff he was watching he agreed but pointed out that he bought his first television in 1955 and for 90% of the time until then it had been nearly useless to him. He knew it was pretty much soap opera he was watching, but it's what's on. After catching only a fraction of the value of T.V. for so long, it would be hard to expect him to be discriminating when it finally came time to have close captions on prime-time television.

So I watched him watch this stuff, just has he had watched me watching cartoons and things as a young boy, unable to share the experience with me. I all but stopped viewing any television around 18 or 19 years of age but I don't know exactly why. The only notable exception is that today I still watch some sports--but with the sound off.

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