flashBACK Friday: Closed Captioning Decoder Boxes

Posted by: Staff Writer on Jan. 31, 2014

If closed-captioning could speak (well, caption) for itself, it’d probably say “we’ve come a long way, baby.”

Remember watching show on TV sets made before 1993? It wasn’t as simple as pushing your remote control’s CC button, because these old sets didn’t have a pre-installed closed caption decoder box. You had to purchase it separately from retail stores such as Harris Communications.

The mind behind the decoder box was Bill Kastner. As a teen, he had a stuttering problem which made him a likely candidate for thinking out of the box and creating accessible communication technology: The closed caption decoder box.

In the 1970s, the Public Broadcasting channel contracted with Texas Instruments (where Kastner worked) to design a device to allow the deaf to read on-air dialogue. Design it he did: The decoder box takes the captioning that’s embedded in the TV signal, and “decodes” it so it shows up on your screen.  

Set-top decoders are available, too, for older TV sets.

Initially, Kastner thought the boxes would sell at Sears, and only in limited supplies worldwide. Little did he know the concept would become so en vogue.

"We never expected that FCC would declare in July of 1993 that all TV's 13 inches or larger would have a closed caption decoder built into them," he reminisces, referring to the Television Decoder Circuitry Act.

Nor could he have imagined today’s captioning glasses, real-time captioning, rear-window captioning, and more. But his decoder box design was the catalyst leading to many milestones, most recently Obama signing the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), and last year’s pending FCC captioning deadlines for video programming shown on the Web.

Thank you, Bill Kastner, for your valuable contributions to accessibility technology! Decades later, your ingenious idea continues to change lives and minds.

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