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September 15, 2021

The History of Closed Captioning: The Analog Era to Today

We’ve all heard of closed captioning before and have likely used it from time to time. For most of the videos available to watch, whether it’s on a phone, computer, or TV, closed captioning is an option for those who want it. While closed captioning is widely available today for many of the videos we watch, it has a longer history than most realize, and learning more about it can aid in understanding as to why this tool is so important.

What is Closed Captioning?

Before we get into the history of closed captioning, it’s important to understand what it actually is. Most people use captions and subtitles interchangeably, but in fact, they are not the same. Subtitles are intended for audiences who have no difficulty hearing but don’t understand the language being spoken in the video. On the other hand, captions are meant for audiences that are hearing impaired. Because of this, captions provide more detail than subtitles, including both the dialogue and any other sound effects to make the video accessible to viewers who are hearing impaired. Closed captions are captions that viewers can turn on and off, while open captions are always on.

Captions in Silent Films

One surprising fact about captions is their origin; captions became prevalent as early as the release of some of the first silent films. While these films included no audio, audiences still benefited from a type of caption called “intertitles.” As silent films had no dialogue, parts of the plot that needed to be explained, and other information the audience needed to understand the storyline was provided by these intertitles.

Subtitles for Foreign Films

As movies with audio became commonplace, they became less accessible to hearing-impaired audiences, whereas viewers could enjoy silent films, whether they were hearing impaired or not. However, closed captioning wouldn’t be widely used to help audiences with hearing impairments for a while. Although captioning wasn’t used just yet, people were beginning to write subtitles for foreign films, which helped more audiences enjoy these films and would later help captions come into use.

Captions in Movies

Silent film actor Emerson Romero was unable to continue working in the film industry as movies started to use audio. To help audiences with hearing impairments enjoy films again, he attempted to create movies that utilized captions. However, movie captions would still not be used for several years, until better technologies were developed. Later, a Belgian method of captioning films was created, and the film America the Beautiful was the first movie to use this method of captioning, in 1951. Later, in 1958, Public Law 85-905 required all Hollywood films to have closed captioning.

Captions in Television

While captions for Hollywood films were required starting in 1958, captions for television programs were not required at this time. Television programs were largely inaccessible for hearing-impaired audiences, but there were still some efforts to get captions on TV. The first TV show to regularly use captions was the PBS program The French Chef, hosted by Julia Child in 1972. ABC also made World News Tonight available with captions after the initial broadcast.

1996 Telecommunications Act

While some stations started making captions available in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that they were required. Several changes around this time helped make captions on TV common.

First, new technologies were created that allowed televisions to decode captions for programs on their own, making them easier to produce. Then, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act protected people with disabilities, including hearing impairments, from discrimination. Lastly, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 required that all TVs have caption coding technology.

Closed Captions Today

Closed captioning is a part of our everyday lives today and is easier now than ever before. Currently, there are even multiple options:auto-generated vs. human-made captioning. While human-made often provides better accuracy, auto-generated captions allow us to create captions quickly. The majority of videos that offer only one option offer auto-generated captions.

Get Reliable Captions for Your Videos

Captioning has come a long way since the days of silent films and making videos accessible has become more of a priority. To ensure that more people can enjoy your videos, be sure that you have high-quality captions. At Focus Forward, we offer closed captioning services that meet ADA requirements and FCC guidelines so that you can be sure your videos are accessible to your audience.

Learn more about captioning service from Focus Forward today!