Captioning – A History

netWhen I was a lad, and at 50 that was some time ago, my mother was my ears. I lost my hearing around the age of 8 or so and with it my access to many things. I used to love listening to the radio in the mornings and can still recall the Beatles singing Let It Be. I can still recall the narky radio ads which often seemed to be simply the audio of the television ads.  “I’m Louie the fly, Louie the fly, straight from rubbish straight to you …. “ To this day these tunes still reverberate in my head. I sometimes spontaneously begin to sing them, my kids hate it!

When I turned 8 my access to overhearing these things went with it. My mother became my ears. She would make phone calls to my mates to get them to meet me over the oval for a game of cricket or a kick around. A lot of the time I would pester her to let me know what is happening on television. There were no captions back then. So I was forever asking mum to tell me what so and so said, why the blonde lady was sick, why the bald guy was angry, why the house was on fire …  they were always blonde, bald, fat or whatever because I didn’t hear their names.

And most times she would let me know. Occasionally she would squirm if the characters were discussing sex. She is British you see. “You know, down there …” she would say and expect me to realise this referred to two people who were about to get into the act of copulation. My mum, like most mums of kids who are deaf, was my key conveyour of information.

In the late 80’s people who were deaf rejoiced as they began to get access to television captioning. Prior to that we would get access to movies with captioning on SBS. For a young lad with raging hormones, SBS was not always the most appropriate place to access entertainment. In the 80’s we began to get access through the Teletext Decoder. This was basically a set top box that you attached to the television set.

At first there wasn’t a lot of choice. Home and Away, Neighbours and the a few British shows on the ABC. For a time we had subtitles on 60 Minutes but they stopped because the Deaf community complained. They complained because some stories on 60 minutes were shown before they could be captioned. Consequently the odd story did not have captioning. Rather than hurry up with the captioning, Channel  9 considered us deafies ungrateful bastards and just stopped the captions altogether. That shut us all up quick sharp.

I purchased my first teletext decoder  in the early 90’s from the now defunct Adelaide store called Brash’s. It cost me nearly $500. I had it for less than a year before it was stolen when my parent’s house was broken into. They left the remote behind so I am not sure what use it was to the people who stole it. All the device did was show subtitles. No doubt they thought it was a video recorder or something.

Over the years televisions began to have teletext built into them. So we deafies began to buy these TV’s. The set top boxes were no longer needed.  Teletext TV’s were considerably more expensive than normal TV’s. I seem to recall  that you could actually get a form from the Deaf Society in Adelaide, fill it in, and get some kind of discount on a teletext televisions. Nowadays digital televisions all come with captioning capability. No longer do deafies have to pay extra for access.

Naturally, as people who were deaf began to invest in captioning technology they began to demand more access to television captioning. Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum worked very hard in this area. Today we virtually have full time captioning on television. Although pay TV and the new free to air digital channels still have some catching up to do.

From these early days of television captioning people who were deaf got a thirst for access. Campaigns began to have captioning introduced to cinemas. Interestingly cinemas were and remain very slow to catch on. I remember seeing my very first caption movie at the Cinema around the year 2000 –  This was the first Harry Potter movie.

Cinema captioning has been slow to improve and is still crap. People who are deaf initially would get access to only one film per month and this movie was often shown at inaccessible times when people were at work or in bed. Frustratingly, sometimes captions would be advertised but not shown. Although today some privately owned cinemas have begun to introduce open caption screenings for people who are deaf, access to the cinema for people who are deaf has been very slow to progress.

In the 80’s we also saw the rapid introduction of videos.  A few of these videos were open captioned, but not many. Video stores began to crop up everywhere. But very few videos from video stores were captioned. Then in  the 90’s some videos, nearly all American ones, were produced with closed captions. To access the closed captions you needed a special Video player. This, of course, was far more expensive than a normal video player. No matter, it was access. I think the first video my family saw with closed captions was Monsters Inc. Unfortunately closed captioned videos were few and far between.

No sooner had we invested in a video recorder that could play closed captions than the DVD became common place. Over the years the DVD has meant that virtually all movies have captions. It has been a godsend for people who are deaf. There are still some DVD’s that are not captioned but these are very much the minority. The introduction of DVD’s, perhaps for the first time since silent movies, has provided people who are deaf with virtually full access to all mainstream movies.

AND NOW – we have the internet TV services that have cropped up everywhere. There is Fetch, there is Stan and there is Foxplay to name a few. Unfortunately none of these appear to offer captions. And then came Netflix this week. Netflix are an American company that were sued under the American Disabilities Act for not providing captioning to their internet content and lost. As a result all their shows must now be captioned. The great thing is that Netflix Australia seems to be captioning all of its content too. With virtually 100’s, possibly 1000’s, of movies and TV series to watch, all captioned, Netflix is a deaf person’s Utopia.

A little over 30 years ago Australians who are deaf had virtually no access to television or movies through captioning. As Video was introduced it took more than a decade before these videos were actually captioned.  Fast forward to now  and nearly all our television is captioned, all our DVD’s are captioned and with Netflix we can watch 100’s and possibly 1000’s of movies and TV series, all with captions. We have certainly come a long way from those dark days of the 70’s and 80’s – Not quite Utopia but we are getting there! All we need is for those dastardly cinemas to catch up!








4 thoughts on “Captioning – A History

  1. Well written article! I recall when I was little that whole extended family always visit my uncle’s place to watch home and away with caption because only he can afford teletext decoder box!
    Now we don’t need to gather together to watch TV together, not sure if it’s best thing or not?

  2. You wrote: “Naturally, as people who were deaf began to invest in captioning technology they began to demand more access to television captioning. Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum worked very hard in this area.”

    Have you forgotten the National Working Party on Captioning (NWPC). It was set up by the ACC and contained representatives from many different deafness organisations including the AAD as it was then, BHA. SHHH, Parents of Deaf children, AFDS, state reps ….. it was due to their hard work that the 6 o’clock news became captioned. Does anyone remember the NWPC’s postcard campaign? There was also a petition that collected thousands of signatures. The NWPC also campaigned tirelessly for closed captioning on videos.

    I well remember those early teletext decoders and how difficult they were to set up sometimes!

    • Indeed there are many people to credit but that’s a whole. New article in itself 😀 but you are right we have a lot to thank for those early pioneers.

  3. […] Now I have heard of downloading movies and streaming movies but just didn’t want to go there, I was quite happy with the way things were. Besides, there was this time when a friend gave me I downloaded a copy of a Doctor Who episode. I watched it I  only to find that there were no subtitles. So I contacted my friend about this and he said that I had to download the subtitles. That was all very well I downloaded the subtitles only to find out the subtitles were in Spanish. Unfortunately for me my Spanish is how shall we say – ‘un pocito’. So I became very convinced that it was all too much hassle. I was better off thinking to my old system tried-and-true. When you consider that history of subtitles in Australia my reaction is quite understandable. If you were further information about the history”A good place to start would be a blog by a  friend of mine: […]

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