Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

The hearing majority of captioning viewers

SUMMARY – Hearing people are now almost certainly the main audience of closed-captioning, outnumbering deaf viewers by a factor of several hundred.


To watch captioned TV in North America, you need a decoder to make closed-captions visible. Until 1993, virtually the only way to watch television captions was to buy a separate set-top decoder.

The largest consistent estimate I have read of decoder sales in all of North America in the entirety of the first 13 years of captioning is 300,000. (I don’t have a citation.) Statistics Canada (in “Selected Characteristics of Persons with Disabilities Residing in Households,” 1994) states that there were 15,575 decoder users in Canada (and 10,240 who needed decoders but didn’t have them, a number not considered here).

Further statistics on the number of users of set-top decoders in the U.S. just after the decoder law kicked in are now available courtesy of Stephen Kaye of the Disability Statistics Center, University of California San Francisco. 15% of deaf people and 1.4% of hard-of-hearing people report using caption decoders. That amounts to 48,000 deaf people plus 127,000 hard-of-hearing, or 175,000 total. (“This is based on 1994–1995 data from the National Health Interview Survey on Disability,” Kaye says.)

Summing up the numbers, then:

Let’s assume that each of those old set-top decoders is watched by one person – a conservative estimate, since many households consist of more than one person. Let’s also assume that all those people are deaf or hard-of-hearing – also a conservative assumption, since NCI propaganda stated that the largest single group buying decoders in the late 1980s and early 1990s consisted of people learning English as a second language, nearly all of whom are hearing, and since a small number of hearing people have been watching captioning since its early days.

Television sales

The Electronics Industries Association estimates the following sales of TV sets:

The EIA started charging a fee for its figures in 1996, so I extrapolate from 1995 data and assume a conservative 25,000,000 sales every year from 1996 onward. Assume 90% of those are 13 inches in size or larger.

Decoder requirements

The Television Decoder Circuitry Act came into effect in mid-1993 in the U.S. It required new TV sets with screens 13 inches or larger to contain caption-decoding chips. So half the TVs sold in 1993 were subject to that law and all TVs made thereafter (except for those smaller than 13 inches in size). The law also applies to computer video boards and other devices capable of displaying TV signals, but those devices are not counted here. A few very small TV sets, like some Zeniths, nonetheless come with decoder chips.

There is no requirement in Canada, but since split runs of Canadian-only sets are rare (apparently only Samsung manufactures such split runs, and even then not always), in practice Canadian sets show the same distribution of decoder equipment.

U.S. calculations

Looking at the numbers:

Canadian calculations

Industry estimates of TV sales in Canada are as follows:



In the year 2001, all it takes are two hearing viewers out of 1,000 to turn on captions in order for hearing people to become the majority audience of captioning. If that number nonetheless seems too high, just wait a few years. With 21,497,400 decoder-equipped sets bought by hearing people annually in North America, every passing year puts a big dent in the percentage of hearing people who need to watch captions in order for hearing people to become the majority audience. (21.5 million decoder-equipped sets bought by hearing people amount to 72 times as many set-top decoders as were ever sold.)

This analysis does not indicate that captions should be optimized for hearing people – in other words, with no rendition of dramatically significant sound effects or tones of voice and no positioning or explicit identification of speakers. Captions must continue to be optimized for an assumed deaf audience; it is merely a consequence of the ubiquity of built-in decoders that hearing people are now the largest audience.


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The hearing majority of captioning viewers

Updated 2001.10.29 (with new statistic)

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