History of closed captioning

5 Great Moments in the History of Closed Captioning

Discover the watershed moments in the 100-year history of closed captioning.

5 Great Moments in the History of Closed Captioning

Captioning has a long and rich history. It is, in fact, about 100 years old!

Many of the milestones that created the closed captions we use today were brought about by people in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

We outline five of the greatest moments in captioning history below.

1. Silent Film Era and ‘Intertitles’

The first elements of silent film were developed at the end of the 19th century.

Initially, ‘interpreters’ would be present at silent films to explain out loud to the audience the action in the film when needed. But once films started getting longer, around the early 1920s, frames of text known as ‘intertitles’ were shown between scenes.

Intertitles displayed dialogue from the film, or an explanation of the action, and were often highly-stylized for maximum visual effect.

It’s important to note that intertitles were not specifically designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, but they certainly made film accessible for them, and they also gave rise to the captioning efforts of the character in our next Great Moment!

2. Deaf Actor Emerson Romero Makes the First Captions for Film

If you’re familiar with closed captioning history, chances are that you know the name Emerson Romero.

Romero was an early film actor and a Charlie Chaplin impersonator in the 1920s. He was also deaf!

In 1929, Hollywood introduced ‘talkies’, making silent film obsolete as far as mainstream society was concerned. Romero was out of a job, and the deaf community was suddenly excluded from watching films.

But Romero had been interested in the technical aspects of film while he was an actor, and he wanted film to remain accessible to his community.

Romero bought his own film reels and began experimenting by making text cards and splicing the film to insert them between scenes. He would then rent his new films out.

Romero is often credited with creating the first captioned film in 1947. Unfortunately, his technique was crude, and did not take off because accessibility was also not a priority in the film industry at the time.

A new method of captioning for film emerged in Belgium shortly after this, in which captions were etched onto the finished print of the film.

America the Beautiful became the first film in America to feature captions using the Belgian captioning technique. It was a 1951 propaganda film that Warner Brothers made to sell war bonds.

Captioned versions of Hollywood films for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences were not required by law until 1958.

3. The Television Revolution

Throughout the 1950s, television was becoming more and more popular in the developed world. But it was not until the 1970s that TV for people with hearing loss made it onto the radar of the television industry.

In 1971, the first National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired was held in Memphis. There, captioning was first demonstrated to an audience. In the same year, the Caption Center was established in Boston.

The first regularly-captioned TV program was PBS’s The French Chef in 1972, a cooking show hosted by the famous Julia Child. The Caption Center also began to broadcast ABC World News Tonight with burned-on captions, four hours after the original broadcast.

It is important to note that these programs were broadcast with burned on captions, also known as open captions. These are different to closed captions, which can be turned on and off by the viewer. (Find out about more in our article The Difference Between Open and Closed Captions.)

Around the same time in the UK, the BBC was demonstrating a caption production system that it had developed with a university professor who had been working on captioning prototypes since the 1960s.

4. Better Flexibility with Closed Captions

A man called Mac Norwood became known as the ‘father of closed captioning’ after bringing closed captions to mainstream television in his role at the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the 1970s.

Norwood was a deaf man who was central to the ‘Line 21’ initiative in 1976 – which reserved the 21st line of television screens for captions.

Pre-recorded shows began going to captioning providers in advance of broadcast, so captions could be visible to viewers at the same time as the original show went to air.

In 1979, the BBC became the first broadcaster to use closed captions for television.

Caption ‘decoders’ were developed to sit on top of television sets and could turn captions on. They allowed deaf and hard-of-hearing people to finally watch (selected) captioned shows from their homes.

Fast-forward to 2006, and the US became the first country to require all new TV programs be closed captioned.

5. Live Captioning Makes An Impact

Live captioning – also known as real-time captioning – was introduced in 1982.

It opened up many new opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, as they were no longer limited to pre-recorded programming. Live captions could be used for meetings, events, live programs, and more.

In 1982, the first high-profile public event was live captioned for audiences – the 1982 Academy Awards.

Live captioning continues to be immensely popular now, and still uses largely the same process for ‘human-generated’ live captions, which have great accuracy. These days, captions can also be produced by computers, though these captions are nowhere near perfect accuracy.

And in the ‘Wild West’ of the internet, videos are still not required to have captions. Some media platforms now encourage captions, and others don’t. Facebook – who Ai-Media supports with closed captions – and YouTube are caption-friendly, but their automatic captions leave a lot to be desired. And users are on their own with apps like Instagram and TikTok if they want to make captions available.

What to Do If You Need Captioning

There you have it! Just a few points in a long and influential history that lead us to where we are today!

Ai-Media is a proud product of this history, and our services are at the cutting edge of where the technology is now.

Visit Ai-Media’s website to learn all about our accessibility services covering captioning, translation and transcription.

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