Closed Captioning: History and New Laws

Ryan Salazar

Closed captioning (CC) laws are changing! Will they affect you? Learn more here as we explore the new regulations on CC and how you can make sure your content is up to current standards.  In the meantime, learn a bit about the history of CC from our friend Ryan Salazar from: Captioning

History of Closed Captioning

Closed Captioning (or “CC” as it’s widely known) is a useful idea that took a surprisingly long time to come about.  The passage of two acts in the early 90’s marked the legal ‘birth’ of required CC:  the first of the two acts was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, followed by The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 (TDCA) in 1991 (Ah, the speed of government).  Technology that allowed CC to be possible had appeared well before the early 90’s but until then it was not ‘officially’ required.

CC provides a visual medium for audio signals allowing the deaf or hard of hearing full access to the audio content of combined audio & visual transitions.  While some consider them subtitles, the US and Canada are the only advanced nations that have a standard distinction between subtitles and CC.  Subtitles in North America are the visual translation (typically in English) of a foreign language, whereas CC is a visual translation of all sound (again with the language printed typically being in English) that also includes a basic description of non-verbal sounds (and language) amid the CC text.

This additional description includes things like a description of sound effects (like ‘loud whistle’ or ‘dog growls’), or music (like ‘dramatic theme song’ or ‘happy tune’), or sometimes the identity and/or tone of a speaker (like ‘menacing tone’ or ‘the lawyer says…’). Subtitles were always included  (i.e., the captions were ‘open’) on film or a television show where translation would be needed (until much more recent technology allowed newer films and/or shows the option of turning the subtitles on or off or even changing the language of the subtitles). CC, however, has always been optional; the additional text could be activated as desired.



1970 saw the introduction by the National Bureau of Standards of a technology designed to add precision timing information to a standard television signal. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) assisted them with this endeavor. While the original intent of the project didn’t work as planned, engineers at ABC proposed that captions could be sent in place of the timing information.  The first demonstration of CC technology took place in Nashville a year later at the First National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired.

A second demonstration was held in 1972 at Gallaudet University (the oldest school for the deaf in the US), where ABC presented for them an episode of the “Mod Squad” that had a CC signal embedded in the show.  CC was initially made possible via a signal hidden in line 21 of the vertical blanking interval (VBI); a decoder was required to access this signal in a usable form.  The following year an encoded broadcast was successfully transmitted from the PBS station WETA. In light of this developing technology and its potential uses, the FCC designated that line 21 of the VBI was hereafter reserved for CC transmissions.

In 1979, the National Captioning Institute (NCI) was formed with the co-operation of the television networks.  NCI provides television access for the deaf community (and recently has also begun to help with media access for those that have English as a second language). In 1980 regular scheduled use of CC began. A Telecaption adapter was developed and sold by Sears in 1980. This decoding unit could be attached to a standard television set to allow access the CC program content embedded in line 21 of the VBI.

Two years later, the NCI developed the capacity to caption live broadcasts with only a 2-3 second lag between the broadcast and its translation and printing thru the CC system. In 1986 the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was given an overhaul, and Section 508 was added to the act.  This section dealt specifically with the technological requirements to accommodate those people with sensory disabilities.


At the start of the 90’s the main provider of CC translator boxes had switched to Sanyo Electric’s set-top box which was marketed thru The NCI.  With the passage of the ADA in 1990 and the TDCA in 1991, the evolution of CC continued. As part of the TDCA, all analog televisions with screens of 13” or greater made after 1993 were required to be CC accessible by the middle of that year; from that point forward, access to new CC enabled devices can be preformed quite simply thru devices like a televisions remote control (often with the touch of just one button).

In 1998, section 508 (which had been added in 1986) of 1973’s Rehabilitation Act was amended yet again – this time, setting the web accessibility standards for nationwide compliance with the usage of CC. New regulations established by this revision require all non-exempt television programs be transmitted with CC available for that content by the beginning of 2006.

An FCC study in 2009 showed that the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities were still underrepresented in their worldwide web usage.  This 2009 study lead to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) of 2010 the act has 2 sections. The first section deals with making broadband fully accessible to people with disabilities. The second section deals in part with the CC requirements of video programming on television and the Internet, as well as access to emergency information and 911 services.

In early 2014, the FCC began to address the quality of CC broadcasts including accuracy, and thoroughness as well as timing and placement. Closed Captioning remains a great boon for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, as well as for those viewing televised media audio intensive environments.

By: Ryan Salazar of Broadcast Beat Magazine

Thanks again to Ryan Salazar from Broadcast Beat Magazine, and don’t forget to check out our whitepaper on the new captioning Laws.  Don’t get left behind!



  1. A follow-up to this describing the current state of the captioning/subtitling art would be most welcome. Now that television is digital, Line 21 is irrelevant, no? So what might that mean? The distinction between captions and subtitles seems pedantic today with subtitles on DVD and BluRay doing everything that was formerly reserved to CC. And that CC logo is almost as archaic as those who still use a floppy disk icon to indicate Save! Can we look forward to a unified approach to video accessibility? In addition to the hearing impaired, shouldn’t we also be looking out for the visually impaired with alternate audio tracks? And what about the web? The W3C has “out-of-band” and “in-band” approaches to those additional tracks that help folks with disabilities and I see that Safari has begun to support internal (in-band) subtitles and alternate audio tracks in its native HTML 5 video controller. Should chapter markers in a chapter track be a part of this accessibility discussion? I’d say yes because there are people with learning disabilities who need to be able to revisit conceptually difficult sections over and over.

  2. Pingback: Ryan Salazar Talks About Closed Captioning and Changing Laws… | Broadcast Beat Magazine: 2014 IBC and NAB Show News - Broadcast Engineering News and TV / Radio Technology Resource for the Broadcast Engineering, Motion Picture and Post Production com

  3. Pingback: Ryan Salazar Talks About Closed Captioning and Changing Laws… | Broadcast Beat Magazine: 2014 IBC and NAB Show News - Broadcast Engineering News and TV / Radio Technology Resource for the Broadcast Engineering, Motion Picture and Post Production com

  4. Pingback: Closed Captioning: History and New Laws | Broadcast Beat Magazine: 2014 IBC and NAB Show News - Broadcast Engineering News and TV / Radio Technology Resource for Broadcast Engineering, Motion Picture and Post Production. IBC 2014, CCW and NAB Show News.

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