The Evolution of Captioning

By Judith H. Brentano, RPR, FAPR, DSA, Punta Gorda, Fla.

Who pioneered captioning? That question was answered in May 2005 when the Accessible Media Industry Coalition (AMIC) gathered in Fairfax, Va., to celebrate captioning's 25th anniversary. Keynote speaker Karen Peltz Strauss, who is currently deputy chief of the Consumer Information Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission where she oversees the FCC's disability and consumer access programs and policies, presented a historical perspective on how the industry evolved starting as far back as 1949 and leading up to March 16, 1980.

In 1949, administrators at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn., and the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City convinced people in Hollywood to begin producing a modest number of films with text, which became known as captioning. In October 1959, the Captioned Films for the Deaf program officially opened at the U.S. Office of Education under the guidance of Dr. Malcolm Norwood, a deaf bureaucrat. TV captioning, as we know it, was not even in the picture.

In 1970, the FCC took its first look at the issue of captioning when a deaf woman petitioned them for captioning of emergency announcements and other special programs. In 1971, in Nashville, Tenn., the Health Education and Welfare Department sponsored the first national conference on TV access. It was the first serious discussion of TV captioning. This conference led to "experiments" at WGBH in Boston, which led to the captioning of one episode of "The French Chef" starring Julia Child. In 1973, WGBH received permission to have ABC rebroadcast "World News Tonight" with "open" captions over PBS stations.

The 1970s could be called the captioning advocacy years. It was during this era that the Washington, D.C., PBS station developed a technique for providing "closed" captions. The FCC approved the captioning technology in 1976, despite opposition from the broadcast industry. In 1979 the National Captioning Institute was created. The first closed-captioned broadcasts began in 1980. By 1986, almost 100 total hours per week of captioning were available on network television. But with only 30,000 estimated caption decoders in the marketplace, complaints from broadcasters on the high cost of captioning programs, coupled with complaints from captioning consumers on the high cost of decoders, led to accessibility recommendations in 1986, and that came to finality with the Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990.

So who were those pioneers, advocates, and technicians who made significant contributions before March 16, 1980? And what is the significance of that date?

First the pioneers: Dr. Malcolm Norwood, honored by AMIC during its annual Pioneers Gala, was named "The Father of Captioning." Jeff Hutchins, AMIC's executive director, stated, "Mac almost single-handedly launched a three-prong attack, funding PBS to develop the technology, funding WGBH to develop the operations, and lobbying network executives to get behind this effort. Malcolm Norwood died in 1989, having seen his dream become reality."

Other honorees were the late Julius Barnathan, Jeff Hutchins, Annette Posell, Deborah Popkin Schuster, Phil Collyer, Sharon Earley Kinney, Carl Jensema, Barry Cronin, Mike Curzan, Carole Osterer, Don Weber, John Ball, Dan Glisson, Mardi Loeterman, and Larry Grossman. All were credited with making significant contributions to the art, the business, or the technology of captioning before March 16, 1980.

Mike Curzan was the projector director tasked in 1977 with forming the National Captioning Institute, and he later served on its board. Deborah Schuster joined The Caption Center/WGBH in 1974 and later became one of NCI's first executives. Annette Posell and Carl Jensema, both deaf, were early advocates. Jensema, a professional caption researcher, later became an executive at NCI. John Ball, vice president of engineering at PBS, oversaw development of the closed-captioning technology and served as NCI's first president from 1979 to 1993. Larry Grossman, former president of PBS in the late 1970s, when captioning was under development, later became president of NBC News. Julius Barnathan, long-time president of ABC Broadcast Operations, was a staunch captioning advocate.

So why is March 16, 1980, an important date in captioning history? Hutchins told us, "The very first caption decoders were delivered by Sears on Saturday, March 15, 1980. The first regularly scheduled captioned programs to air on network TV were on Sunday evening, March 16."

Later that week, First Lady Rosalyn Carter welcomed captioning, broadcasting, and consumer leaders to the White House for a luncheon honoring the unveiling of the "Line 21" technology that had been mostly developed by engineers at PBS.

What about realtime captioning pioneers? It goes without saying, Martin H. Block, Ph.D., was the captioning pioneer of our profession, credited with writing the first "live" captions at NCI in 1982. AMIC paid tribute to Block, as well as Joe Karlovits, Marc Okrand, Betty Hallman, and Dave Margolis, for their contributions to an industry that has had a positive effect on society, particularly on Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. Studies at the Institute for Disabilities Research and Training show that the generation of young deaf people who have now grown up having captioning their entire lives are able to read better and faster than previous generations. As a result, we now see more young deaf people entering professions that two decades ago were nearly devoid of people who are deaf, such as lawyers, doctors, and even politicians. Their access to mainstream media is credited as one of the major reasons for this societal shift that is helping tens of thousands of deaf people to live and work more productively.

Dr. Norwood would be very proud of that!


Judith H. Brentano, RPR, FAPR, DSA, is a past president of NCRA and is the president of EduCaption, Inc.

The Accessible Media Industry Coalition (AMIC) is a trade organization comprising 26 companies that provide a large portion of the captioning services in America today, plus subtitling and description for vision-impaired viewers. You can visit its Web site at