40th Anniversary of the Captioned News

Forty years ago today, on December 3, 1973, The Captioned ABC Evening News first aired at 11:00pm on PBS, becoming the first regularly scheduled, captioned TV program. The show was a rebroadcast of The ABC Evening News, which aired at 6:00pm the same day, captioned for the benefit of the deaf and hard-of-hearing population.

Unlike the news today, the original Captioned ABC Evening News was not captioned using live realtime captioners, but recorded from the 6:00pm broadcast and captioned at a furious pace by a team of five people: the first listened to an audio recording of the program and made notes about the timing of news reports and commercial breaks. The second person began transcribing the beginning of the broadcast as soon as the first commercial break began. After a short time, a third and fourth team member began reviewing the initial captions and captioning the first commercial breaks, respectively; the fifth person was responsible for checking captions for readability, ensuring that they were true to the meaning of the broadcast and written to no higher than a sixth-grade reading level. Finally, the team assembled and reviewed the entire file, establishing caption placement and determining appropriate display speed. In only five hours, the captioned news broadcast had to be ready for air.

The captions and the broadcast itself were geared much more heavily toward a deaf audience than programming today. Captioners edited program audio to eliminate passive verbs, substitute easier-to-pronounce synonyms for long words, and restate idioms that may be confusing to a deaf audience. The production team replaced the six minutes of advertising in the half-hour show with miscellaneous programming such as a “deaf events” segment and a “deaf history” bit. Less than a year after the first broadcast, 56 stations nationwide had adopted The Captioned ABC Evening News. Soon, however, technology caught up, and by the early ’80s, with the development of realtime captioning for news broadcasts, The Captioned ABC Evening News was all but obsolete.

The formerly painstaking captioning process has since been streamlined and automated. News shows are now captioned live by skilled realtime captioners “writing” up to 240 words per minute. For offline content, computer software determines what caption display time is sufficient and automatically checks spelling.  Verbatim captioning has long since replaced the practice of simplifying complex language in the broadcast, and today, edits between program audio and caption files are reserved mostly for speech stutters and unusually fast audio.

For a technology that is just now over the hill, we’ve come a long way!

by Carlin Twedt

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