skip to main content

<< Learning Center

Media Accessibility Information, Guidelines and Research

How Bird Hunting in North Carolina Saved Captioning

*Editor's note: Originally written in 2004.

Flick on the TV, and there they are: that wonderful piece of magic called "captions." It's like turning on the lights when we enter a room. We don't worry about how they work or how they got there, we just enjoy them.

Sunset with silhouetted figures of a hunter and two dogs.

But, just as there's a fascinating story behind the invention of the electric light bulb, there's a story behind the appearance of those little words on your TV, and it's an interesting one. The 50-year journey that began in the mind of a deaf man who loved movies, named Emerson Romero, to your television set involves Hollywood moguls, movie stars, national politics, bird hunting in North Carolina, millions of dollars, the Captioned Media Program, and you!

The Pioneers (1947–1959)

Emerson Romero

The story begins in 1947, with a deaf man, Emerson Romero. Emerson, who had acted in films during the Golden Era of silent movies, never lost his love of the silver screen. He began experimenting with the limited technology available at the time to find a way to bring Hollywood back into the deaf community. (Emerson wasn't the only star-struck member of his family; his cousin was Cesar Romero, famous to TV viewers as the original Joker on the old Batman TV series.)

Emerson was working for an aircraft manufacturing company at the time of his experiment. Through his brother, he obtained a few old films and tried to adapt them for deaf viewers. The solution he found was to splice in text between frames, like the old silent movies. There would be action, then text, then action, and so forth. No dialog or text appeared on the screen simultaneously.

Emerson circulated his efforts among deaf clubs and schools in his spare time. The films were of poor quality as producers were afraid that if better copies were provided, someone would use them to make bootleg copies of the film. The captioning techniques were crude, but they were the first real captioning efforts and these films were the best that could be obtained at the time. Given Emerson's lack of outside financial support, technology, or precedent, we have to applaud at what he actually did accomplish--showing the first captioned films ever for the deaf community--rather than criticizing the quality of his efforts. And we should never forget that the dream of captioned movies for all of us originated in the mind of a deaf man.

Arthur Rank

Two years later, movie mogul J. Arthur Rank (one of the "big players" during Hollywood's Golden Era during the '40s and '50s) provided a captioned feature-length film at a movie house in London. His method of captioning involved etching the captions onto pieces of glass, which were then slid in and out of a projector. These were shown on a second, smaller screen to the bottom left of the screen the movie was shown on. This method required a skilled hearing operator to listen to the dialogue and slide the glass plates in and out of the second projector at just the right time. Needless to say, this method never caught on with the movie industry. Although the deaf community was reportedly "lined up around the block," Rank never repeated the experiment after this first effort.

Edmund Boatner

Dr. Edmund Burke Boatner

Dr. Edmund Burke Boatner was superintendent of the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Connecticut during the 1940s. He recalls:

"I took our basketball team into town for dinner and a movie one evening. I recall that the movie was 'The Son of Monte Cristo.' As I watched the boys' reactions, I could see the looks of bafflement on their faces. In one scene, for example, a group of men were casually sitting around a table talking when suddenly they jumped up and started (fighting) with their swords. Why? Our boys couldn't see any reason for their behavior; they hadn't heard the conversation. It was then that I made the resolution to see that understandable films were provided for the deaf."

Boatner first went to the Lexington School in New York, where his friend, Superintendent Dr. Clarence O'Connor, showed him a short captioned film made by O'Connor's assistant, Dr. Ross Hamilton. Hamilton's film was captioned in the same way as the J. Arthur Rank film: with glass slides displayed on a smaller screen. Both O'Connor and Boatner agreed that this was not a practical way to provide captioned films for the deaf, because it forced the viewer to look away from the action to read the captions. However, the Lexington captioning experiment served the important purpose of bringing Boatner and O'Connor together in an effort to find a way to provide captioned movies for the deaf.

The First "Open Captions"

video still of ducks crossing a road. Caption reads: (Female reporter) A duck crossing sign is apparently needed.

Around this time, a company in Belgium devised an entirely new method of captioning. Rather than fiddle with glass slides (as Rank and Hamilton did) or interrupt the flow of the movie by alternating inserted text and then action (as Romero did), this method involved printing the captions directly onto a master copy of the film and using this to make open-captioned reproductions for distribution. The results closely resembled the "open captions" still used today. (Open captions are captions without the black box, such as the subtitling found on foreign films.)

This process was leased from the Belgians by a New York company. Later on, J. Pierre Rakow, a deaf vocational teacher at ASD in West Hartford, would play a key role in persuading this company to caption films for the deaf.

Captioned Films for the Deaf

With a practical method for captioning found, Boatner and O'Connor were in business. They organized and incorporated Captioned Films for the Deaf (CFD), and ASD donated an office for CFD to operate from. Boatner was president, and O'Connor was vice-president. This was the first serious effort to provide captioned films for deaf Americans.

The fledgling CFD, however, was just an office, two men, and a name on a legal paper at the courthouse.

They possessed no actual films, and no money to buy them. They began seeking outside donations with which to obtain films and caption them. They also assembled a board of directors that boasted some of the biggest names in Hollywood (Katherine Hepburn and the wife of actor Spencer Tracy were two) and industry.

The first substantial money given to the CFD, two grants of $2500 and $5000, were from the Junior League of Hartford (JLH). The President of the JLH, Marion Hepburn Grant, was sister to board member and actress Katherine Hepburn. No doubt this played some role in the JLH's decision to make a grant to the CFD. The JLH put on skits and conducted fund-raisers to meet their pledge to the CFD, and JLH members would later donate their time to transcribe the first captions for CFD movies, working from scripts provided by Hollywood producers.

The first captioned CFD movie shown in the United States (and, by modern standards, the first captioned movie) was America the Beautiful. This 25-minute short was made by Warner Brothers during WWII to help sell the war bonds which financed the war effort. Boatner invited a group of deaf adults to view the first captioning effort. He later wrote:

". . . it was a great success. One woman, Mrs. Elsie Durian, wept. It was the first film she had understood in more than 20 years."

Captioning was on its way.

Securing Federal Legislation

For the next ten years, CFD scrounged and scrambled and captioned as many films as Hollywood producers were willing to let them have. They located the technology and developed the captioning procedures which were to set the standard for the next 20 years. J. Pierre Rakow was the CFD's "indispensable man" (according to Boatner) during this period, overseeing day-to-day operations, as well as teaching full time at ASD. The founders and workers of the CFD were the true pioneers of today's captioning industry.

By 1958, the CFD had a total of 29 films. These were circulated among deaf clubs and schools for a very small fee to cover postage and other expenses. However, the conclusion was reached that more money was needed than the CFD could provide. There was especially no money to meet the goal of providing captioned educational films for use in the classroom. So, while public schools had been using films in the classroom for decades, deaf students still had no access to this valuable teaching tool.

Graham Anthony

Since the U.S. government was already funding a Talking Books for the Blind program, Boatner and O'Connor reasoned, why not Captioned Films for the Deaf?

CFD board member and businessman Graham Anthony was a key player in the next step: securing federal legislation and money for the first large-scale captioning program. The CFD had decided to try to get a law passed which would fund captioned movies for the deaf. But how?

Here, a real stroke of luck fell into their laps. Graham Anthony was appointed to the advisory committee to the director of the vocational rehabilitation division of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) which was later split into several agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education. The CFD now had "a foot in the door" on Capitol Hill.

Meeting with HEW

Anthony arranged for Boatner and O'Connor to have a meeting with the director, whose name was Mary Switzer. (Ms. Switzer was later to play a key role in developing vocational rehabilitation services for the deaf, working with Boyce Williams. Boatner later said of her, "the deaf never had a better friend.") They brought one of their captioned films with them to demonstrate. Ms. Switzer was a firm supporter of the idea from the start, insisting that her boss, the Secretary for HEW, view the film. Soon afterwards, they convinced U.S. Senator William Purtell of Connecticut (where CFD was located) to introduce a bill which would authorize money to procure, caption and distribute suitable films for the deaf. Purtell convinced 40 other senators to cosponsor the bill, which passed easily and was then sent to the House Committee on Health, Labor and Education. After review, the bill would then be sent to the full House for a vote. If it passed the House, it would become a law.

However, a problem appeared at this juncture. The chairman of this particular committee was striving mightily to prevent the passage of a particular labor bill. The only way he could do that was by refusing to pass any bills at all, so he was refusing to let his committee to meet.

If the committee did not pass the CFD's bill before the end of the Congressional session, it would "die in committee," which was exactly what the chairman was trying to do to the aforementioned labor bill. It looked as if the CFD's bill would die in its infancy.

Saving the Bill

CFD board member Graham Anthony came galloping to the rescue again, like the U.S. Cavalry in the movies his beloved CFD would later caption and distribute. Anthony flew to Washington to try to talk to the chairman of the committee which was slowly strangling the CFD's hopes to death.

The same thing happened to Anthony which would probably happen to you or me; the chairman, a very busy man, refused to see him. However, the clerk who handled the paperwork for the chairman happened to be an old friend of Anthony's. What's more, they had grown up hunting birds together with a deaf friend in North Carolina. Many years later, Boatner recounted this meeting between Anthony and the clerk:

"Anthony told him about the bill, but the clerk said, 'Graham, you know I can't do anything about the bill. The chairman is just not going to convene the committee (to pass this bill)!'

"Anthony replied, 'Joe, you have got to think of the need of our deaf people. If you don't, you will never be able to live with your conscience. I know you can do something!'

"After considerable argument the clerk finally said, 'Graham, I ought not to do this, but for the deaf, I will, just this once.'

"The clerk directed a girl to find the bill and bring it to his desk. He then reached in his drawer, pulled out the committee stamp, slapped it on the bill, and put the bill in the chairman's 'out' bin. Shortly thereafter, the bill was routinely passed by the House!

"I am sure a lot of credit is due to the deaf companion with whom, long ago, they had both hunted birds in North Carolina."

The bill passed in 1959, but it wasn't until 1967 that Graham Anthony told the full story of exactly how the bill reached the House floor.

The Early Years (1960–1969)

With the passage of this law, Public Law 85-905, the CFD became a federal program. Boatner and O'Connor, having achieved what they set out to do, withdrew from the CFD. Dr. John Gough, former superintendent of the Oklahoma School for the Deaf, was selected by the government to lead the new federal program, which was still called Captioned Films for the Deaf. Funding was set at $78,000 per year, and the day-to-day operations were contracted out to private providers. (Today, the National Association of the Deaf [NAD] administers the day-to-day operations of the CFD, now called the Captioned Media Program [CMP], under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Education [ED].) From the very beginning, demand from the deaf community exceeded the supply of captioned films available.

Here, Dr. Malcolm "Mac" Norwood enters the picture. Gough tapped Mac to be the first deaf project officer for the CFD program. This office would, for the next 38 years, provide the money, expertise and leadership which changed the lives of deaf people forever and made closed-captioning a reality.

One of the first projects Gough and Norwood tackled was to amend the newly passed PL 85-905. This groundbreaking law, while a great achievement and a watershed mark in the history of captioning, had a serious flaw: it only allowed for feature films.

Educational Films

Educational films were not provided for under the new law. This meant that the CFD could only obtain and caption feature films. Boatner, O'Connor, Gough and Norwood were all educators and were keenly aware of the deep need for captioned educational films in deaf classrooms. It had always been their intent to one day caption and distribute educational materials.

In December 1960, the first captioned educational film was released through the CFD program. Rockets-- How They Work was captioned via an arrangement with Encyclopaedia Britannica and distributed by the CFD.

In 1962, PL 85-905 (now called the Captioned Films Act) was modified by the passage of PL 87-715. This authorized $1.5 million to the CFD for training, production, acquisition, and distribution of educational media and to provide for research into educational media for the deaf.

Media-related projects which resulted from this research would change the face of deaf education and eventually lead to the founding of the Caption Center (WGBH), the National Captioning Institute (NCI), four regional media centers, the first decoders, and many other important projects.

One significant factor that came into play at this point was the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. ESEA made possible a truly explosive nationwide growth in school facilities and equipment. Schools which possessed nothing fancier than a mimeograph machine could suddenly afford movie projectors, overhead projectors and transparencies, new libraries, even new buildings. This had the effect of creating an ever-increasing demand for CFD educational films, as schools for the deaf acquired new, state-of-the-art media equipment.

The Captioned Films Act was modified again in 1965 by PL 89-258, which increased funding to three million and allowed the CFD to purchase and distribute media equipment (projectors, overheads, and the like) to schools and programs for the deaf.

The years between 1965 and 1969 saw explosive growth and change for the CFD program, as Gough and Norwood struggled to keep up with demand. Funding rose to seven million, doubling fiscal resources in a mere four years.

Summary From 1947–1969

From the years 1947 to 1965, CFD had been a small, struggling program in the new field of captioning. By the late 1960s, CFD was involved in developing a sprawling array of media resources for the deaf. These included captioned film libraries called "depositories," four regional media centers at 60 locations nationwide on residential school campuses and at other programs for the deaf. Lesson guides were being written at workshops and distributed, free of charge, with each educational title, allowing teachers of the deaf to easily integrate the new medium of captioned films into their classrooms, and a host of other projects. The CFD was also funding the initial research into captioning which would lead to the creation of the first decoders and Line 21 closed-captioning technology.

It was at this time that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (CFD's parent organization) underwent a restructuring. As a result of this, all media efforts for the handicapped (not just the deaf) were placed under the now-renamed CFD. The new office was called the Media Services and Captioned Films for the Deaf (MS-CFD) Branch of the Division of Educational Services section of the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (BEH). (Today, the program has been renamed to the Captioning and Adaptation branch.)

Gough retired in 1969. Gough was replaced by Dr. Gil Delgado, who served briefly, until he left to join the faculty at Gallaudet College in 1972. Mac Norwood was named his successor.

The CFD was now consolidated into the new MS-CFD. It was still overseen by Mac Norwood in addition to the many other projects under his supervision; and the MS-CFD would play a vital role in the next step: making closed-captioning a reality.

The Birth of Closed Captioning (1970–1980)

The four regional media centers, one of the projects established by Mac Norwood and funded via his MSCFD office, conducted a series of seminars, workshops and training programs throughout the mid-1970s, which provided the initial forum for discussion for the captioning of television.

In 1971, the southern regional media center hosted the First National Conference on Television for the Hearing-Impaired at the University of Tennessee. This conference was attended by representatives of all the major TV networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS), producers, federal agencies (represented by Mac Norwood), deaf/hearing-impaired persons, professionals, parents, and teachers. Many issues were discussed, including review of the available technology and needs of consumers.

This conference is a red-letter date in the history of captioning. It brought the big TV networks to the table with consumers and federal agencies for the first serious discussion on captioned TV. It also provided a foot in the door to the world of TV for captioning advocates, which, as time has shown, they used very capably.

Soon after this conference, in 1972, staff from the MS-CFD arranged a meeting with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The meeting concluded with the creation of the first detailed blueprint for bringing captioning to television. (By this time, funding had risen to thirteen million per year.)

At that time PBS was a quasi-federal agency which received most of its funding from the U.S. government. It also had a strong educational background, which is a primary reason that PBS's Boston affiliate, WGBH, was chosen to run the first "trial" captioned TV program. Funding was arranged by Mac Norwood and the MSCFD. Using techniques learned from the CFD program and other sources, and creating solutions to problems that no one knew existed, WGBH aired an open-captioned episode of The French Chef and then an episode of The Mod Squad in 1972.

However, a new technical breakthrough was needed, since the major networks would not agree to extensively open caption their programs. They feared that the public would not accept having words scroll across their screens.

As an interim solution for meeting the needs of the deaf community, PBS began rebroadcasting the ABC News programs with open captions in 1973. These ran until the advent of widespread closed-captioning.

The work done by PBS and its engineers during this period is recognized as a cornerstone of modern captioning. The research, funded by MS-CFD (renamed the Captioned Films & Tele-communications branch in 1974), uncovered two competing closed-captioning techniques which were presented to PBS for testing. One, developed by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), was the familiar "Line 21" technique which places captions on a previously unused broadcast bandwidth. The other was a system which broadcast the captions off the edge of the screen. PBS staff had to test and choose between two competing closedcaptioning systems, and chose the "Line 21" technique which is still used today.

Funded by the Captioned Films & Telecommunications branch (CF&T), PBS spent the next eight years developing closed-captioning technology, including the first decoder in 1974. While PBS engineers assaulted the problem on the technology front, Mac Norwood and others joined the assault on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approval of the Line 21 technology and obtaining network support.

One major problem in getting the support of the major networks was the question of who would assume the cost of closed-captioning. Mac Norwood writes:

"The cost of captioning had been a point of contention between the networks and the (government's captioning) project, and was an issue during the FCC hearings . . ."

After much arguing and stubbornness by the networks, it was proposed that they share the cost of the new technology with the government. Norwood continues:

"Finally, ABC raised the idea of a nonprofit, freestanding captioning institute to supply captioning for (ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS) network programs at low cost. This led to further discussion . . . thus was born the concept of a national captioning institute."

In the spring of 1979, the Secretary for HEW announced the creation of the National Captioning Institute, and the last piece for the access of the deaf to television was in place.

Finally, in early 1980, 33 years after Dr. Edmund Boatner sat in a darkened movie theater and vowed to make movies accessible to deaf persons, ABC officially opened the era of closed-captioning by airing the first closed-captioned TV movie, Force 10 From Navarone.

Update on the Captioned Media Program and Open Captions

The CFD program phased in videocassettes to supplement 16mm films in the mid-1980s and was renamed the Captioned Films/Videos (CFV) program. Later technological developments dictated additional changes as the program withdrew all films in 1998, began newer forms of media (CD-ROM, computer disks, and other), and was renamed the Captioned Media Program (CMP).

The CMP is now administered by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and funded by the National Initiatives Team of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The CMP operates 35-plus branch depositories located nationwide from its headquarters in Spartanburg, SC.

The CMP collection of captioned videos has grown to over 4000 titles, which are divided into two collections: an educational collection and a general-interest collection. The general-interest collection contains classic movies and special-interest videos, such as hobbies, counseling, travel, and many other topics. These are still loaned, free of charge, to any American with a hearing loss or to any parent/professional serving them.

The CMP is still unique in many ways. It is the world's oldest and largest collection of free-loan captioned videos. It still prefers the use of open captions for all CMP materials, especially educational materials, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are:

  1. Open captions, or subtitling, require no decoder. This is an important consideration. More and more deaf and hard of hearing children are being "mainstreamed"; many teachers are unfamiliar with decoder technology, or may not have access to it. Plus, not everyone has a decoder or a decoder chip, such as a late-deafened adult who owns a TV made prior to 1993.
  2. Open captions more closely resemble the print material used to teach children to read, with appropriate capitalization, punctuation, upper- and lowercase letters (complete with descenders, which are letters that drop below the baseline).
  3. Open captions can be placed anywhere on your TV screen as opposed to closed captions, which are limited to specific areas of your screen and may block onscreen action.
  4. Open captions, once completed, remain unchanged for the life of the videotape. They cannot be accidentally erased.

One of the factors why the CMP is unique is that rather than being market-driven (captioning only what they are paid to caption), the CMP is need-driven. This is an important distinction. The CMP specializes in captioning videos which are currently denied to captioning consumers because they are not available in a captioned format. This includes most educational and special-interest titles.

Less than 15 percent of all new-release special-interest and educational videos are available in a captioned format. With more than 80 percent of all deaf and hard of hearing children in public schools, the CMP is often the only specialized resource that teachers can draw on to educate these students. Recognizing this, the CMP also provides free printed lesson guides with each educational title to allow captioned materials to be more easily integrated into a classroom setting. The CMP materials reached an audience of over 3 million in 2002.

Another factor that makes the CMP unique is the method used for selecting titles to be captioned. Unlike any other captioning program, the CMP relies almost exclusively on consumer input to select new titles, rather than relying on in-house staff to perform this function.

One way this is accomplished is by setting up booths at conventions and asking consumers what kinds of videos they want to see captioned. All educational titles are selected by a carefully chosen panel of master teachers, librarians, and other educational specialists. Educational titles must be approved twice by the same panel. A second panel comprised of representatives from consumer advocacy groups performs a similar function for the special-interest titles.

The final factor to be mentioned here is that while many captioning agencies perform advocacy (as does the CMP), only the CMP actively assists new captioning agencies. The CMP subcontracts out the actual captioning of its new titles and has no fiscal interests to guard from competition. Therefore, it is in the CMP's best interest (as it is to consumers) to increase the number and quality of captioning vendors.

The CMP does this by providing free materials which provide basic information on captioning, and by answering the questions asked (on a daily basis) by inexperienced vendors, such as: "How do you caption something offscreen?" Consumers, parents, video producers/distributors and other interested parties are also provided with captioning and other accessibility information.

The most important resource in this area provided by the CMP is a captioning reference tool called the Captioning Key of Educational Media. This is a technical manual which discusses captioning types and methods; placement of text onscreen; presentation rate (words per minute); language mechanics; special considerations such as captioning foreign accents; and much more.

The CMP created the Captioning Key as a guide for vendors who caption for the CMP, but distributes it free of charge to any consumer or agency requesting it. There is no other such tool available to new vendors, and the CMP distributes hundreds of copies of this per year.

If one were to sum up the CMP from its inception to the present, the best way to put it might be that the CMP was a unique program when it was founded in 1949, and is still unique today.


The story of captioning doesn't end at this point because it is still being written by advocates nationwide; but this article has to end somewhere, and 1980 is as good a place as any. The year 1980 marked the end of an era; the many exciting events which were to follow, such as real-time captioning, closed-captioned home video, and captioning in the courtroom are perhaps better categorized as refinements, since they were applications or extensions of existing technology. The "pioneering era" which had created the concept of captioning, won the legislation to fund it, and made it widely accepted and available, was over. But the era of captioning was just beginning.

It would take another article at least as long as this one to describe the exciting milestones in captioning which have been reached since 1980, and the even more exciting captioning issues of today (such as captioning on the Internet). So, this article will end here, after tying a few loose threads.

Mac Norwood retired in 1988. He left a body of work for captioning that will most likely never be equaled or duplicated. Captioned programs on television had grown from the original 16 hours per week aired in 1980 to over 700 hours during his tenure, and that number grows annually. Mac's position was taken by one of his students, Dr. Ernest Hairston, just as he had taken the place of his old teacher, Dr. Boatner, as head of the CFD: Dr. Judith Holt today heads what is now called the National Initiatives Team of the U.S. Department of Education.

Tags: history, captioning, dcmp

Please take a moment to rate this Learning Center resource by answering three short questions.

Okay, Sure!