Captions are a common sight on video content in contemporary culture. Many news organisations, like NOW THIS, for instance, produce video stories for social media with a lo-fi hip-hop or elevator music instrumental as its audio with moving images depicting the story and text detailing the story and closed captions translating what is being said during interviews or captured footage. This aesthetic has been a response to the growing trend of users watching video without sound. While captions have long been associated with people who are d/Deaf or have hearing impairment, their more recent usage has been a result of a change in customer habit. The practice of closed captioning isn’t reserved for social media content, though, and is being used on other platforms in many industries for business meetings and academic conferences, for instance.
Captioning has been around for almost half a century. They were used exclusively for pre-recorded content. Open captioning – similar to those seen in the videos made by news organisations like NOW THIS – are captions which cannot be turned on or off. They are permanently visible. They were first used in 1972 on The French Chef which was created and hosted by Julia Childs. Closed captions were being experimented with around this time too. It took until 1980 for the first closed captions to appear on a pre-recorded TV show, but the audience needed a decoder box to view the captions. In 1982, a courtroom reporter was hired to live caption the ad-lib parts of the Academy Awards, while scripted segments had captions prepared. This consistent use and government-backed development and implementation of the technology and policies ushered in shows, events, and films which supported captions.
Closed captions are ubiquitous nowadays. As mentioned above, the progression from a legal requirement for TV companies to being generally used by everyone has been stark. The acceleration had been a result of more and more televisions being found in the home and then, more recently, by the proliferation of screens which enable users to consume video content. Smartphones and PCs have increased the demand of such content and made producing such content easier. Now, though, studios needn’t hire courtroom reporters to provide real-time captions (open or closed).
Businesses like Verbit have developed advanced captioning software which uses AI to produce captions much faster and cheaper than a human transcriptionist, while achieving their high-performance standard. This isn’t for TV use but for video conferencing software which businesses, legal firms, and education professionals use to host seminars, lectures, and meetings. Captioning is becoming as integral as using a top-end microphone.
Closed captions are being used by content creators and influencers on various social media platforms, similarly to how NOW THIS uses them. TikTok users are manually inputting closed captions themselves. YouTube has closed caption software available for their videos, but for smaller creators it requires them to write and correct the captions and also find translators to do the same for other languages. More and more creators are live-streaming to many, many thousands of people, for which closed captions are a great tool to engage wide audiences which won’t all have the same ability.
Closed captions’ ubiquity and development shows how important it is to provide a different means to communicate, not just to improve sensual access to the content, but intelligible.