What is closed captioning?

You’ve seen it. Closed captions are the words on the screen available on almost every program. Some of us think of them as useful for when your spouse is sleeping or on the phone. Yes, they’re pretty useful for that purpose, but closed captions are much more important to a small group of folks, and they’re the ones we should thank for the almost universal convenience of closed captions.

First, the answer to the question you’ve been thinking about… why are they called “closed?” Because you don’t see them unless you want to. If they were on all the time they would technically be called “open captions.” So there you go.

Closed captions were invented in the 1970s, a decade known for its outreach to folks with different abilities. It was in the 1970s that sidewalks got ramps, that door handles turned into those lever things you see in offices, bathroom doors got braille, and it was in 1979 that closed captioning was first demonstrated, as a way to help deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals enjoy TV. Captioning, when it did happen, required a special box that sat on top of the TV (literally a set-top box) that decoded the captions and displayed them on the TV screen.

A big plus for closed captioning came in 1990 when a pair of laws were passed requiring all TVs larger than 13″ to include mandatory closed caption decoders. By 2000, almost every TV program had closed captioning, which became mandatory in 2002. However, there was a big setback for closed captioning when the government failed to require closed captions be sent over HDMI cables. In fact, there is no standard at all for closed captioning over HDMI, causing most pay-TV receivers to implement their own captioning schemes or risk violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Unfortunately, these captioning schemes vary in quality and no matter what you lose the convenience of simply getting closed captions when you mute the TV.

Given the current climate in Washington, that’s not likely to change, which is a real shame because there was a very short period of time when closed captioning really worked for everyone and worked well. But nonetheless captions still work for the people for whom they were intended, the people who rely on them for all their TV enjoyment.