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A Brief History of Closed Captioning

Whether you've encountered its unmistakable white text on black background at the gym, in a bar, or on the couch, you're familiar with closed captioning. Here's a brief history of the technology that has provided a (mostly accurate) transcript of television programming for more than 40 years, and made its network debut 35 years ago.

TELEVISION CAPTIONING BEGINS WITH JULIA CHILD

The nation's first captioning agency, the Caption Center, was founded in 1972 at the Boston public television station WGBH. The station introduced open television captioning to rebroadcasts of The French Chef with Julia Child and began captioning rebroadcasts of ABC News programs as well, in an effort to make television more accessible to the millions of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.

CLOSED CAPTIONING MAKES ITS DEBUT

Captions on The French Chef were viewable to everyone who watched, which was great for members of the deaf and hard of hearing community, but somewhat distracting for other viewers. So the Caption Center and its partners began developing technology that would display captions only for viewers with a certain device.

"The system, called 'closed captioning,' uses a decoder that enables viewers to see the written dialogue or narration at the bottom of the screens," reported The New York Times in 1974. "On sets without the decoder, the written matter is invisible."

The technology, which converts human-generated captions into electronic code that is inserted into a part of the television signal not normally seen, was refined through demonstrations and experiments funded in part by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1979, the Federal Communications Commission formed the National Captioning Institute (NCI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and providing access to closed captioning. The first closed-captioned programs were broadcast on March 16, 1980, by ABC, NBC, and PBS. CBS, which wanted to use its own captioning system called teletext, was the target of protests before agreeing to join its network brethren in using closed captioning a few years later.

CC AND THE LAW

CC

In 1990, a law—the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990—was passed mandating that all televisions 13 inches or larger manufactured for sale in the U.S. contain caption decoders. Sixteen years later, the FCC ruled that all broadcast and cable television programs must include captioning, with some exceptions. The exceptions include ads that run less than five minutes and programs air between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. According to captions.com, nearly all of the commercials that aired during this year's Super Bowl XLIX were captioned (the cost of captioning a 30-second spot is about $200, which is just a fraction of the approximately $4 million it costs to buy the ad space).

PRERECORDED VS. REAL-TIME CAPTIONING

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Prerecorded captioning is applied to prerecorded programming, such as sitcoms, movies, commercials, and game shows. It can take up to 16 hours to caption a one-hour prerecorded program, as the process involves more than transcribing a program's script. Using special software, the captioner must set the placement of the caption on the screen, as well as set when the caption appears and disappears. In the early days of captioning, scripts were edited for understanding and ease of reading. Today, captions generally provide verbatim accounts of what is said on the screen, as well as descriptions of sounds in the background.

Real-time captioning, which was introduced in 1982, provides a means for the deaf and hard of hearing community to enjoy live press conferences, local news, and sporting events on television as they happen. Real-time captioning is typically done by court reporters or similarly trained professionals who can type accurately at speeds of up to 250 words per minute. While captioners for prerecorded programs typically use standard keyboards, a real-time captioner requires a steno machine.

HOW A STENO MACHINE WORKS

A steno machine contains 22 keys and uses a code based on phonetics for every word, enabling skilled stenographers to occasionally reach typing speeds of more than 300 words per minute. Words and phrases may be captured by pressing multiple keys at the same time, and with varying force, a process known as chording. Real-time captioners, or stenocaptioners, regularly update their phonetic dictionaries, which translate their phonetic codes into words that are then encoded into the video signal to form closed captions.

REAL-TIME CAPTIONING ISN'T EASY

For live newscasts, closed captioners often receive the script that appears on the teleprompter in advance, but not every anchor follows this script as religiously as Ron Burgundy. Whereas court reporters generally aren't concerned with context and can clean up the first draft of their transcript at a later time, context matters for real-time captioners, who have one shot to accurately record what is being said. Given the speed at which they work, homonyms can prove especially difficult for stenocaptioners, as can unfamiliar or unusual names.

According to Jeff Hutchins, a co-founder of VITAC, one of the nation's leading captioning companies, there's more to being a closed captioner than knowing how to type. "There's a certain pathology to the process that we recognize," he told The New York Times in 2000. "A young lady will come in here, pretty good court reporter, very confident about her abilities, excited that she's going to get into captioning, and she will begin the training process very fired up, excited. Generally we know that in two to four weeks that she is going to be walking around with stooped shoulders, totally dejected, feeling like, 'I'll never get this.'"

Stenocaptioners can make more than $100,000 a year, but the work is stressful. In 2007, Kathy DiLorezno, former president of the National Court Reporters Association, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the job is akin to "writing naked, because a million people are reading your words. You can't make a mistake."

MISTAKES HAPPEN

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While a faulty decoder or poor signal can produce captioning errors, more often than not they are the result of human error, particularly during live programming. Though stenocaptioners prepare for broadcasts by updating their phonetic dictionaries with phonetic symbols for names and places that they expect to hear, even the most prepared and accurate stenocaptioner can make a mistake from time to time. For instance, all it takes is a single incorrect keystroke to type the phonetic codes for two completely different words. Mistakes aren't limited to words, either. In 2005, American Idol displayed the wrong phone number to vote for contestants in the closed captioning of its broadcast. Media companies are experimenting with automatic error-correcting features, voice-to-text technology, and innovative ways to provide captions for multimedia on the Internet. Though captioning continues to become cheaper, faster, and more prevalent than it is today, the occasional mistake will likely always remain.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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The 25 Best Movies to Stream Right Now
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster (2015).
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster (2015).
A24

An incredible amount of entertainment is at our fingertips now, which causes an unfortunate conundrum: water everywhere and not a drop to drink. There’s so much on offer that we end up scrolling endlessly through vast online libraries of enticing movies, plagued by the burden of choice until we give up and wash the dishes.

Instead of resorting to household chores, here’s a tidy list of excellent films worth considering before you’re blinded by the infinite streaming options on the main Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime screens. Pick one from this concise list, and fear option paralysis no longer.

1. 13TH (2016)

Ava DuVernay’s primal scream in documentary form chronicles the American prison system through the lens of historical racial inequality. It’s as informative as it is enraging.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. AIRPLANE! (1980)

A classic parody of disaster movies that places Julie Hagerty, Robert Hays, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen into the cockpit. Surely, you can’t pass up streaming this one.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992)

Hilarious, heartfelt, epic, and intimate, this story of an all-female baseball team during World War II is one of the best movies of the modern era. It also taught us that there’s no crying in baseball.

Where to watch it: Hulu

4. THE BIG SICK (2017)

The breakout romantic comedy of 2017, Kumail Nanjiani stars as a wannabe stand-up comic who falls for a PhD student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) despite his parents wanting him to have a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage. It’s a fantastic (and partly autobiographical) film that was written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. But there’s no shame in watching it solely for Holly Hunter.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

5. A GHOST STORY (2017)

Another hit from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, this meditation on grief will either completely entrance you or leave you ice cold. Starring Rooney Mara (eating pie for the first time in her life) and Casey Affleck (who spends most of the movie under a sheet), it’s a divisive but profoundly rewarding experience.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

6. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)

Inventive and incendiary, this novel adaptation breathes new life into the stumbling zombie genre. In a post-apocalyptic Britain, a group of hybrid children who salivate for human flesh but also have the ability to learn is held captive so that the military can workshop a cure and study their behavior. The brightest among them, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), plots her escape.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

7. THE GODFATHER (1972) AND THE GODFATHER II (1974)

Don’t think of it as a double feature of two of the best movies of all time. Think of it as a singular, six-and-a-half-hour experience with a brief intermission. And if you’ve got an entire day to kill, let The Godfather III pull you back in.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE INDIANA JONES QUADRILOGY (1981 - 2008)

All four Indy movies—from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—are available on Amazon, which means you can spend an entire day trying to retrieve mythic treasures before Gestapo officers get their mitts on them. Just watch out for snakes …

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

9. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Speaking of treks into the past, Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-hunting, scalp-retrieving mission is available to stream without the danger of highly flammable nitrate film reels. Our introduction to Christoph Waltz as a charming villain, who faces off against Brad Pitt’s American GI and Mélanie Laurent’s French Jewish cinema owner as everyone tries to kill Hitler.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. THE LOBSTER (2015)

In the world of Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2016 film, being single is illegal, which is why Colin Farrell’s David must find a life mate in 45 days or be turned into an animal of his choosing. The comedy is as dry as a salt lick in the Sahara, and the dystopian vision is absurd, which allows this story to prove just how strange love can be.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

11. THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (2017)

Noah Baumbach has earned a reputation for digging 10 feet deep into his characters and leaving their hearts exposed for us. In his latest, Adam Sandler stars as an unemployed divorcee who moves in with his father (Dustin Hoffman) and navigates relationships with his sister, half-brother, and daughter, while juggling a difficult diagnosis.

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. MOONLIGHT (2016)

A trailblazer and last year’s Best Picture winner, Barry Jenkins’s film chronicles the life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) as he grows up under the burden of his own and others’ responses to his homosexuality. It’s a stirring portrait anchored by phenomenal performances (including an Oscar-earning turn from Mahershala Ali).

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

13. MUDBOUND (2017)

It’s amazing that we can watch a few awards season favorites from our couch, but with Netflix and Amazon pushing for more original content, you can expect that to become the norm. One of the very best of 2017 (and certainly the best ensemble), Dee Rees’s exceptional film weaves together the lives of one white family and one black family in WWII-era Mississippi to both joyous and tragic effect.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

Invite your friends over and bet them all the money in your pocket that Tim Burton didn’t direct this holiday classic, where Jack Skellington tries to take over Santa’s job. You’ll have a creepy fun sing-a-long, and you’ll win your friends’ money.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. OKJA (2017)

If you didn’t think the adventure of a young girl and her super pig could make you pump your fist in the air, it’s time to check out this quirky firecracker from Bong Joon-ho. Thought-provoking and breathtaking? That’ll do, super pig.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. PADDINGTON (2014)

The sequel to this animated hit is in theaters now, offering fans even more uplifting, good-spirited thrills. The original sees the adorable bear on a slap-stick ride through London. Don’t forget the marmalade!

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. THE PRESTIGE (2006)

Christopher Nolan’s poetic and exciting exploration of the antique world of stage magic and Tesla-fueled wizardry hides its tricks in plain sight and still manages to confound. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman star as dueling conjurers with a deadly serious rivalry. 

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. SCREAM (1996)

Wes Craven riffing on Wes Craven, this is the ultra-rare horror film that manages to mock the genre while getting the blood pumping in terror. Come for the slasher brilliance, stay for the 1990s fashion and lack of cell phones.

Where to watch it: Hulu

19. SICARIO (2015)

In this gripping crime drama, Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent struggling with the abandonment of ethics apparently necessary in taking down a Mexican drug lord. It’s a showcase of intense talent, from Blunt to director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) to cinematographer Roger Deakins (whose career is too long and impressive to condense).

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

20. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Serial killer perfection. Jonathan Demme managed to create a incredible thriller, detective yarn, and horror film all in one. Of course, Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling is a quiet tornado at the dark center of this murder mystery, even if Anthony Hopkins gets to chew more scenery. Did you know it was released on Valentine’s Day?

Where to watch it: Hulu

21. SUNSET BLVD. (1950)

Perhaps the greatest film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s cinematic stick of dynamite features a formerly famous actress (who’s ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille) and a hack screenwriter whose relationship with her ultimately leads to him floating the wrong way up in her swimming pool.

Where to watch it: Netflix

22. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

Vibrant, effervescent, and deeply weird, Paul Dano stars in this musical collage as a depressed loner stranded on an island until he finds a talking, farting corpse played by a very post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe. They save one another and, together, attempt to get back to civilization while singing the praises of Jurassic Park.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

23. THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998)

Unmistakably hopeful and humane, Peter Weir’s sci-fi film stars Jim Carrey as a naïve man who has lived since birth as the only person on a reality show who isn’t in on the reality. Blending philosophy and reality TV together is a feat on its own, but the movie is also fantastically entertaining.

Where to watch it: Netflix

24. THE WITCH (2015)

Delicately crafted with an eye toward historical accuracy, this existential horror film focuses on a New England farming family in the wilds of 1630 who believe a witch has cursed them. Anya Taylor-Joy’s standout performance acts as a guide through the possessed-goat-filled insanity.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

25. ZODIAC (2007)

The product of David Fincher’s notorious perfectionism, this deep dive into the unsolved case of a series of brutal crimes in the San Francisco Bay Area explores the depths of humanity’s depravity as well as its capacity for seeking justice. It’s a masterclass in filmmaking with powerful turns from Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

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The Jim Henson Company
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The Dark Crystal Is Coming Back to Theaters
The Jim Henson Company
The Jim Henson Company

In 1982, Jim Henson and Frank Oz dared to venture into somewhat gloomier territory with the release of The Dark Crystal. Though the film, which centers on two Gelflings (a sort of creepy elf-like creature) attempting to save their species and restore peace to the world, wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, it has developed a large cult following in the more than 35 years since its release—even among those kids it scared the hell out of back in the day. Now, as Netflix preps its prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, for release later this year, Nerdist reports that the original film will make its way back into theaters next month.

As part of Fathom Events’s ongoing effort to breathe big-screen life back into classic films with limited releases across the country, The Dark Crystal will be playing in more than 500 theaters nationwide on February 25 and February 28. In addition to the original film, the screenings will also feature a brand-new introduction courtesy of Lisa Henson, Jim’s daughter and current president/CEO of The Jim Henson Company, who will talk about the making of the film and how it fit within her father's creative legacy.

To find out whether The Dark Crystal will be coming back to a theater near you, log onto Fathom’s web page for the movie and type in your ZIP code; tickets are on sale now.

[h/t: Nerdist]

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