The History of Closed-Captioning

Closed-captioning is the process of displaying text on any moving image in order to provide additional or interpretive information to the viewer. Captions can be displayed on a variety of screens, such as televisions, video monitors, and other visual displays.

Closed-captioning is not to be confused with subtitling, which is a similar process, but is primarily used to transcribe or translate the dialogue. Subtitling is used when the sound is available, but not understood. On the other hand, closed captioning’s main function is to describe the audio content when the sound is either not available, or the viewer is deaf or hard-of-hearing.

One interesting note is that the term "closed" indicates that the captions are not visible until somehow activated by the viewer. Usually the activation occurs by the viewer selecting a “CC” option on their remote control. On the contrary, “open” (also called “burned-in”, or “hard-coded") captions are visible to all viewers. Those are permanently inscribed onto the video.


The Caption Center, which was the nation's first captioning agency, was founded in 1972 at WGBH, Boston’s public service station. In an effort to make television more accessible to deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers, the station introduced open captioning on television rebroadcasts of a popular show called “The French Chef with Julia Child.” They then began captioning rebroadcasts of ABC News programs as well.

One issue quickly arose with the captions on The French Chef. The fact that they were able to be viewed by everyone who watched, was great for members of the deaf and hard of hearing community, but could be distracting for other viewers. So the Caption Center soon developed technology that would display captions only for viewers with a certain device. The system they introduced used a decoder that enabled viewers to see written dialogue or narration at the bottom of the screens.


The first closed-captioned programs were broadcast on March 16, 1980 on TV stations across the U.S.

According to the National Captioning Institute (NCI), the first children’s show to be closed captioned was in March 1980, and was called “3-2-1 Contact.” It aired on PBS stations nationwide. Later the same year, Sesame Street became the second children’s program to be captioned and is now the longest running captioned children’s program.

In 1982, the NCI developed a process called “real-time captioning,” which is the process for captioning live broadcasts. With the ever-increasing popularity of “live” programming, this is a widely-used closed captioning process to this day.


In 1990, a law was passed which mandated that all 13 inches or larger televisions manufactured for U.S. sale, must contain caption decoders. This law is called the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990. This was the same year the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was also passed.

In 2006, the FCC went a step further and ruled that all broadcast and cable television programs must include captioning, with a few exceptions, such as ads and overnight broadcasts.

As technology continues to improve, so do closed-captioning capabilities.

CMI is a premier provider of translation and localization services nationwide with a special focus on international content,   Services include Closed Captioning, Localization, Dubbing, and Subtitling.  Contact us if you’d like to hear more about our services.  We would be happy to provide a complimentary project review.