The Olympic torch will blaze through U.S. living rooms next month trailing a string of white-on-black type. For the first time, viewers who own closed-caption decoders will be able to switch from sound to subtitles for the entire two-week sports extravaganza on NBC (the three pay-per-view channels showing the Games won’t be closed-captioned). This isn’t good news just for the 20 million Americans who are hearing-impaired. In fact, nearly half the people who buy decoders-available at electronics stores for about $180 — have normal hearing.
According to studies commissioned by the nonprofit National Captioning Institute, captions help kids learn to read, students improve their vocabularies, illiterate adults catch up, and immigrants catch on. And word is spreading. On the networks, 68 percent of shows come ready-to-read, including all of prime time and most national news and children’s shows. ”Eventually all programming will probably be closed-captioned,” says Richard Stubbe, director of television network operations at ABC. But words aren’t cheap: It takes $2,000 an hour to translate a show offered free to viewers. Nevertheless, all TVs 13 inches and larger will have a built-in decoder by July 1993, and since most people replace a TV set every 10 or so years, we should all be able to read along by 2003.