For over thirty years, our televisions have been a major part of our lives, bringing a literal world of news, information and entertainment into our homes, yet for millions of Americans this amazing source was just a silent movie. In 1985, 9 percent of the U.S. population, or 21.2 million individuals were hearing impaired and deaf, reported the National Center for Health Statistics. These days the people who are hard of hearing or deaf can enjoy almost half of all prime time programs thanks to closed captioning.
One organization is responsible for providing 90 percent of the closed captioning for the shows we see on TV, and it is a non-profit organization that has been around since 1979. This same group has also done the subtitles for thousands of movies that are now available on videotape or DVD's. A typical television market with six stations, each running 18 hours of shows, will have between 12 and 13 percent of the programs available with subtitles. In addition, at least one third of all the captioned programs available are for children.
Encouraging network executives, producers, and programmers to close caption their shows, is one of the objectives of this non profit agency. It is not as easy as it might seem. The market that can be reached through closed captioning is new enough that many producers and other network executives are just now becoming aware of it. It appears until contacted by the organization, catering for the hearing impaired had not been amongst their priorities.
One factor that does not appeal to networks and producers is the fact that only around one million people make up the closed captioning audience. This number is determined from the fact that only around 150,000 homes have the decoder that allows them to view closed captions. However, they expect that number to rise by some 30,000 by the end of the year.
Experts called this situation a kind of "chicken and egg" type deal in that the number of programs being offered with closed captioning was influenced greatly by the number of viewers with decoders. To provide captions during one hour of television, it can cost around $2000. Other variables that affect the total cost include how much time producers have to add the captions as well as the difficulty of the program's script.
It must be determined when a caption should appear, and the length of time viewers need to read the caption, when prerecorded shows are being captioned. Films which include long action sequences are easier to caption, generally. It is much easier to provide subtitles for Raiders of the Lost Ark than for A Man for All Seasons.
The Public Broadcasting Service, the Department of Education, and other businesses, provide the necessary funding for certain shows while foundations and NCI fund other programs. Costs are generally divided up with the network paying for a third of the costs, a sponsor or other fund paying another third and then the subsidizing corporation picking up the final third. The trouble with bringing in deaf audiences is two pronged, firstly people need the decoder and secondly public awareness is a hindrance. It cost $280 when it first came out, in 1980. You can purchase it today for between $200 and $250, with the average being $200.
The goal is to convince corporations and foundations to help the low income deaf and hard of hearing by placing decoders in their households. We currently have programs active in many large cities which allow people to purchase this decoder for around $35. Ideally, technology will quickly advance to a point in which TV manufacturers will include decoders by default within their TV models, not unlike how stereo sound is now included in most television sets.
Most Americans do not think about the hearing impaired, it is a hidden disability. Unlike other disabilities, hearing loss is not outwardly seen, and therefore, this largest disability group in our country, stays mainly out of the public conscience. The biggest bonus to closed captioning is it allows a family to enjoy a show together, the hearing impaired enjoying the show or movie just as much as family members who can hear perfectly.
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