What are Captions?

Like subtitles, captions display spoken words as printed words on a television screen. Unlike subtitles, captions are specifically designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. They are carefully timed and placed to identify speakers, on- and off-screen sound effects, music and laughter.

Closed captions are hidden data within the television signal that must be decoded before being displayed on the screen. For years, viewers had to purchase a set-top decoder box to access the captions. Fortunately, the federal Television Decoder Circuitry Act, passed in 1990 and implemented in 1993, mandates that all televisions with screens 13 inches or larger include a built-in decoder chip, thus greatly increasing accessibility. Twenty-nine million new televisions are sold each year, and every home is expected to have a caption-capable set by 2000.

Who Watches Closed Captions?

An estimated twenty million Americans have enough of a hearing loss that they cannot fully understand the meaning of a television program. Although deaf and hard-of-hearing people comprise the main audience, the total audience for captioning also includes:

  • elderly people whose hearing diminishes as part of the aging process;
  • people learning English as a second language;
  • anyone who appreciates the extra information captioning offers.

Open and Closed Captions
Captions may be either open or closed. Open captions may be viewed on all television sets, without a decoder. Closed captions require specialized circuitry within the television, or in a set-top decoder box, in order to be seen.

How are Programs Captioned?

Captioning is part of the post-production process where writers transcribe the audio portion of a program with a specially designed computer program. Depending on the complexity of the program, the captioning process can take 15-30 hours for a one-hour program.

For live broadcasts, real-time captioning couples the skills of a court stenographer with computer technology. Stenographers type words as they are spoken, producing captions which are broadcast simultaneously with the live program. Although most real-time captioning that is broadcast is 96% accurate, the audience will see occasional errors. In addition to live, real-time captioning, captions are being added to pre-recorded video, rental movies, and educational and training tapes.

How Do You Know if a program is captioned?

(CC) or symbols are commonly used in television listings or on the screen to indicate that a program is closed captioned. Another symbol, , is also used to denote captioned programs. In addition to these more familiar symbols, many television networks have developed their own symbols to identify captioned programs.

Who Pays for Captioning?

Advertisers, producers, networks, cable services, the federal government, foundations, corporations, and individuals all participate in funding the cost of closed captioning.

Captioning and the ADA
With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the use of captioning has been expanding as a means to meet new communication access requirements. Entertainment, educational, informational and training materials are captioned for deaf and hard of hearing audiences at the time they are produced and distributed.

Helpful Hints when Purchasing a Caption-Decoder-Equipped Television Set

The font is the shape of the letters, numbers and symbols used in the captions. If you look carefully, you will notice important differences in the size and fonts of captions on various TV sets. When comparing TV decoders, look at the captions from the same distance you will watch at home.

Ask yourself:

  • Can I easily make out all the letters?
  • Can I tell the difference between capital O and capital D?
  • Is the punctuation clear?
  • Are the letters well-formed, or do they look like the old computer type with obvious dots and no round edges? (Study the B, C, P and R.)
  • Will I be comfortable looking at this display for long periods, or is it a strain to try to read this particular font?

Other important questions when choosing a decoder-equipped television set include:

  • How easily can captions be turned on and off? Is there a button on the remote that allows me to directly access the captioning, or do I have to scroll through a complicated set-up menu to turn them on or off?
  • How smoothly do the captions roll on and off the screen?
  • How many extra services does this TV have? (Color captions, caption "channels," etc.)

Where can I purchase captioning services?

The following are major vendors of captioning services. Please call for more information.

The Caption Center
125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 02134
617-492-9225 TTY/Voice
617-562-0590 Fax
Email: caption@wgbh.org

National Captioning Institute
1900 Gallows Road
Suite 3000
Vienna,VA 22182
703-917-7600 TTY/Voice
800-533-9673 Voice
800-321-8337 TTY
Email: mail@ncicap.org

312 Boulevard of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
412-232-6344 TTY
412-261-1458 Voice
800-27-VITAC TTY/Voice
412-261-6257 Fax
Email: VITAC@aol.com

For further information about captioning, contact:

The Caption Center
125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 02134
617-492-9225 TTY/Voice
617-562-0590 Fax
Email: caption@wgbh.org

National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders
Information Clearinghouse
1 Communication Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20892-3456
800-241-1055 TTY
800-241-1044 Voice
Email: NIDCD@aerie.com

National Association of the Deaf Law Center
814 Thayer Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20910-4500
301-587-7730 TTY/Voice
301-587-0234 Fax
Email: NADHQ@juno.com

There are many other providers of captioning services for video production. For a list of caption vendors and specialized software to create captions, contact:

The National Information Center on Deafness
Gallaudet University
800 Florida Avenue, NE
Washington , D.C. 20002-3695
202-651-5052 TTY
202-651-5051 Voice
202-651-5054 Fax
Email: nicd@gallux.gallaudet.edu

Some of the above information was reprinted from publications created by the Caption Center, including Michelle Maddalena's article Reaching Out To A New Audience (NIMA NEWS - Vol. IV, Number 7, July/August 1996) and Captioning, from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

This information is provided by the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.