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Television for everyone
Sudhir Damodaran argues the case for mandatory captioning of television programmes in India.
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August 2002 - Closed Captioning is the technology that sub-titles all the audio information/spoken words in a television programme, which is then telecast and viewed as readable text on the screen. The viewer can hence both hear and read the audio or aural information.

Such sub-titling or captioning is termed 'closed' because the captioned text is carried as encoded information within the television broadcast signal, and the viewer can only access or see the text by using or activating a Closed Caption decoder. This is a compact set top box that takes in the in-coming TV signal (via cable or over the air broadcast from Doordarshan or originating from a DVD/VCR/VCD player) and decodes the captioned text for display on the TV screen. The viewer can hence turn on the text or turn it off by simply pressing a button on the Closed Caption ready TV set. Viewers who do not wish to see or read the captions can simply turn it off.

Pre-recorded programmes have to be captioned by use of an encoder and captioning PC software, before broadcast by the studio/programmer. Similarly, 'live' or real time programmes like news reports can be captioned by use of trained 'steno-captioners'; who can capture the words on a keyboard at high speed. Some closed caption decoder have the advantage of optionally being able to delete bad/swear words from both the audio and captioned test automatically.


Deaf viewers and hearing impaired viewers - estimated at close to 100 million, or 10% of the population - could understand and enjoy all the captioned TV programmes. This would include kids, adults and elderly. Elementary school children who are just beginning to learn a new language can learn faster. Captioning is also helps adults who are technically illiterate and is a tool for language improvement. With the automatic deletion of foul language, children/family TV viewing is possible. In the United States (where captioning of TV programmers are mandatory by law - see details below), closed captioning has benefited over 100 million persons. 28 million of these are deaf or hearing impaired, 35 million are elementary school children, 45 million are individuals learning English and 27 million are adults who are learning to read and write.

Research has proved that reading and writing skills - in both kids as well as adults - improve tremendously with closed captioning of TV programmes. Captioning is currently the norm in over 30 countries world wide, and mandatory by legislation in the US, UK and other European countries. In fact, with almost 90% of US homes installed with a closed captioned TV set, it is believed closed captioning is now used more among the hearing rather than the deaf population.

U.S. law

The United States is disabled-friendly and closed captioning is no exception. The 'Americans with Disabilities Act' made it mandatory for all government/government funded and public service programming - especially emergency information - to be closed captioned before transmission for the benefit of the hearing impaired population. The 'Television decoder Circuitry Act 1990' made it compulsory w.e.f. July 1993 for all televisions with screen size over 13" to be sold only with a Closed Caption decoder. The FCC mandates that all cable TV networks, broadcast stations, MMDS stations, and DTH satellite stations must ensure captioned programmes are distributed in its entirety without any disruption. With effect from 2000, the FCC also requires television channels/networks to ensure a minimum number hours of captioned programming per day. Currently the requirement is 10 hours per day, but this rises to 15 hours per day from Jan 2004. From Jan 2006 a minimum of 95% of all new programmes must be closed captioned. There are regulations for pre-1998 library programmes as well.
US Federal Communications Commission - Closed Captioning Regulations


In India, the draft Communications Convergence Bill 2000 allows for "fair, equitable, non-discriminatory access to network infrastructure or service". This section can be expanded to include such non-discriminatory access to television by the hearing impaired/handicapped via mandatory closed captioning of popular programmers. The Disabilities Act could have similar provisions. The Ministry of Social Justice as well as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting need to be urged to make progress towards these objectives. The I&B ministry needs to make it mandatory for programmers / channels to closed caption & telecast a part of their key/popular programs. This will create the market for manaufactures to produce and sell low-cost decoders.

Impact on television advertising

In the case of the United States, the FCC did not mandate captioning for advertisements and rightly assumed that the prevailing law will drive advertisers to caption their advertisements and thereby reach a major market of the hearing impaired as well as various ethnic groups, elementary kids and adults learning English as a second language. In the absence of captioning, almost 25% of the population were not being reached - a major loss to the channels and advertisers. Today, all leading commercials in the U.S. are closed captioned, and corporate specifically sponsor captioning of entire TV programmes - both towards meeting social as well as commercial goals.


Captioning expands the reach of television to bring the hearing impaired, children and learning adults into the mainstream. Closed captioning of all leading major language programmes in India has the potential of catalyzing literacy. Needless to say, the manufacturing of decoders as well as setting up of captioning centres to caption past and current programming will result in opportunities for entrepreneurs as employment in general.

Sudhir Damodaran
August 2002

Sudhir Damodaran is the Director of Catvision Products Ltd. He is based in Noida, U.P.