Hearing with Your Eyes Open: Why Closed Captioning Matters

Written by Trevor Boelter & Elissa Sarna

As the parent of a young child who is in the beginning stages of reading, my wife and I try to do everything right: We play “I Spy” at the dinner table by having our daughter sound out words that begin with different letters. We read books to her at bedtime and when our little “monster” is in the mood to doodle; we motivate her to write words along with her drawings.

Like any parent, we want our child to have the best opportunity to learn and grow in a world intertwined in a web of syntax; so that she can navigate nouns, verbs, adjectives, and those dreaded oxford commas.
But did you know that by pressing a little button on your television remote control, you have a much greater chance to improve a child’s literacy? And what if I told you that by using that same button, you could improve your ability to better retain information by reading what’s already being said on the screen?
Closed captioning (CC) is not just for the D/deaf or hard of hearing community anymore; it’s an advantage for the masses. Closed captioning provides a stronger opportunity to present your message whether it’s on a television program, a lecture, sales presentation or commercial advertisement.
In her study, “Video Captions Benefit Everyone,” Morton Ann Gernshbacher found that not only are children more successful at gaining a foothold on literacy, but university students were found to better retain and recall videos they watched with captioning as opposed to those without. And this retention is especially useful for foreign-language students who watch a video with the captioning of that language in question.
I notice closed captioning far more than ever I did previously. I see CC on in sport bars so as not to compete with the music and I always see it on at the gym while we sweat it out to our own soundtracks.
Closed captioning allows us to hear with our eyes open and it doesn’t surprise me that I have a better ability to recall a hilarious line from a film or a tantalizing statistic because I read it on the screen.
As you would expect, I turned the CC function on as soon as I learned about its relation to improving my daughter’s literacy, and though the television programs themselves are all (by law) closed captioned, almost 8 times out of 10, closed captioning is not available during the commercial breaks.
If closed captioning improves literacy, allows the better recall of information, as well as addresses the most important civil rights of the D/deaf and heard of hearing community – why aren’t more advertisers closed captioning their commercials?

In the U.S., the FCC doesn’t require TV advertisers to caption commercials, because the average commercial isn’t defined as “video programming” by the FCC. According to the FCC’s Closed Captioning Rules, “Video programming includes advertisements of more than five minutes in duration but does not include advertisements of five minutes’ duration or less.” So while video programming distributors are required to provide closed captions on 100% of their “new” (i.e. post-1998) nonexempt content, they are not required to ensure that the typical 30-second TV ad is captioned.
According to Sean Zdenek’s book “Reading Sounds,” the closed captioning landscape for TV ads is uneven. Exact numbers are hard to come by and most likely vary by market. National ads are more likely to be captioned than local, small market ads. In addition to Super Bowl ads, political ads are also more likely to be captioned, if only because it is required by law in certain instances.

These laws are not uncommon, as Canada recently enacted a law on September, 1 2014: “All advertising commercials, sponsorship messages and promotions broadcast on television stations in Canada must be aired with closed captions for the hearing impaired.”

Kudos to Canada, but why can’t the U.S. follow suit? It certainly couldn’t hurt and in most cases, it would benefit the advertiser directly.

In addition to providing equal access for all viewers, it would make sense for advertisers to reach more than 38,000,000 deaf and hard of hearing viewers who are potential consumers of their products. Captioning is a low-cost service. The rewards are potentially much greater for advertisers who make their commercials accessible.

According to Elissa Sarna, SVP of Sales & Operations at Digital Media Services and an industry-expert in closed captioning: “Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen a definite increase in captioning for broadcast, Blu-Ray and digital platform content. With established FCC mandates and quality guidelines for 100% captioning of all broadcast programming, captioning is now part of the post-production budget and factored into the delivery schedule. Captioning of ‘web-streaming content if previously broadcast with captions,’ has also become an FCC mandate. There are no longer any excuses for not providing this vital service to the community.”

Elissa further explains that, “Brand loyalty is a pattern of consumer behavior where consumers become committed to brands and make repeat purchases from the same brands over time. Loyal customers consistently purchase products from their preferred brands, regardless of convenience or price.”

The deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers are more likely to support a brand that reaches out and includes their community. About one in five adults in the U.S. are disabled, according to 2000 Census data. Nearly one in three Americans will experience a disability between the ages of 35 and 65, predicts the American Council of Life Insurers. The discretionary spending power of the disabled—at $220 billion in 2002, per the National Organization on Disability—outshines that of even the revered teen market, which laid out $170 billion in 2002, reports the market research firm Teenage Research Unlimited.

Sure, captioning might be considered a luxury for a cash-strapped advertiser or it can be considered another obstacle when the creative is minutes away from missing a station log, but there is no excuse to forgo closed captioning in a commercial.

As an advertiser, if you choose not to caption your spots, you must make the determination that by not adding closed captioning, you are alienating a percentage of the population that relies on it, ignoring an even larger percentage that will see it, and forgoing a golden opportunity for the message to be recalled for future use.
And if there is one thing that unites us all, whether we like it or not, hard of hearing or not, we are all consumers and what better way to cement your message with a viewer than by having them hear the message with their eyes open.



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