Online Captioning: The Right Thing to Do

Jun 17, 2007  •  Post A Comment

In 1971, Julia Child’s great cooking show “The French Chef” became the first TV program accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people through closed captioning. Today, more than 35 years later, closed captioning isn’t available to those who need it to enjoy new shows such as “Ugly Betty” or “Jericho” by streaming them on the Web or downloading them from iTunes.
So even as the television industry embraces the digital age, it’s leaving behind some disabled Americans, as well as those who use closed captioning to learn to speak English.
That means that more than 23 million viewers in the U.S. are being excluded from the future of television in which viewers can watch whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want. We urge the industry to do what’s right and devote whatever resources are necessary to provide closed captioning for all the material they are distributing over developing digital media.
No one can dispute the moral imperative of giving people with disabilities equal treatment. It’s a principle that has been enshrined in the law and in our country’s regulatory scheme. It’s incumbent on the TV industry to apply that principle and get ahead of the legislators and regulators on this issue.
In this week’s edition of TelevisionWeek, Senior Reporter James Hibberd shines a light on the slow start networks have gotten off to in providing closed captioning in the digital world. While it can’t be argued that networks are flouting any laws or regulations, the ethical case for extending closed captioning to new media is buttressed by the laws that are on the books.
Since 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act has required that public facilities provide access to verbal information on television. Congress supported closed captioning in its Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the Federal Communications Commission has established rules to implement those legal requirements.
In this case, what’s right for TV is right for the Web.
Commercial networks that consider closed captioning in the digital world a burden should look to their underfunded cousin, PBS, and then take a long look in the mirror.
PBS is already captioning shows including “Nova” for streaming on the Web. After startup expenses, it costs only a couple hundred dollars per show to provide closed captioning.
Given the low pricetag and the ease with which any technological barriers can be crossed, it’s difficult to see why the networks haven’t done more to treat hard-of-hearing Americans equally in the digital world. Now that the issue has been illuminated, it’s time for them to act.


  1. The cost estimate is correct, and for a nationally televised program this is a minor expense, but we have talked to several ‘local’ programs running on ‘local’ stations, and this cost is actually 50% of what they would get from advertising, so they’re always in the red. We’d love to see some way for this to work for everyone. Maybe Apple’s quicktime update 7.1.6 has the answer.

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