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The Battle Over Closed-Captioning : Television: Education groups support legislation to aid the hearing-impaired, but the electronics industry opposes it as a ‘regressive tax.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Legislation that would make closed-captioning technology a required part of most new televisions sold in America is winning support in and out of Congress.

That’s good news for the estimated 24 million deaf or hearing-impaired U.S. citizens, who now must rely on costly closed-caption decoding devices or, as is more common, view their favorite programs hearing only muted mumbles or nothing at all.

Installing decoding circuitry would allow television sets to display captions without separate decoders. The bill calls for closed-caption decoding chips to be installed in all new TVs sold in the United States with 13-inch screens or larger, beginning Oct. 15. That is the minimum recommended size for viewers to read closed captions, which run along the bottom of the screen in the manner of a subtitled foreign film.

But the electronics industry is fighting the legislation with a “read my lips” rationale, arguing that the bill’s mandatory standard for all TVs would impose a “regressive excise tax” on everyone who wants to buy a television.

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The measure comes at a time when the Bush Administration and Congress are acting on several fronts to increase rights and access for disabled Americans.

In March, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered sweeping redesign of future commercial airliners to make it easier for handicapped people to fly. Last Tuesday, the House approved landmark civil-rights legislation aimed in part at gaining disabled Americans equal access to jobs, public transportation and restaurant service.

Until now, however, disabled activists’ calls for built-in decoders as standard TV technology have largely been ignored.

In the closed-caption technology, first marketed to consumers in 1980, the subtitles are contained in a portion of the television signal that does not appear on the TV screen unless called up by a special decoding device. The most recent model of decoder, the TeleCaption 4000, retails for about $175 and can be purchased by telephone via the AT&T; Special Needs Center, or at Sears, J.C. Penney, Highland Superstores and other chains.

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But due to a combination of limited availability, spotty marketing and cost, the National Captioning Institute estimates that only about 300,000 of the machines have been sold in the last 10 years, with a roughly estimated viewership of 1 million.

This suggests that only about 1 in 25 deaf or hearing-impaired people is now able to watch closed-captioned shows--not much market incentive for networks and local affiliates to increase the hours in which they provide closed-caption broadcasts, the bill’s advocates contend.

“The audience for captioned programs must be enlarged,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s telecommunications subcommittee. He called the bill, introduced earlier this month by Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), “an essential tool for increasing the use of captioning.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the Senate sponsor of the measure, is expected to push for its endorsement in a June 20 Commerce Committee hearing.

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The legislative mandate would come with a price tag, although each side of the debate offers different figures. Some proponents contend that the built-in decoding equipment might boost costs only $3 to $5 per TV set; the bill’s most vocal opponent, the Washington-based Electronic Industries Assn., asserts that prices could rise by as much as $20 per set.

Regardless of how much it might be, the electronics group objects to any cost hike applied across the board to all citizens.

In testimony this month before Markey’s subcommittee, the EIA’s vice president for its consumer electronics group, Thomas P. Friel, argued that while existing closed-caption decoders are too expensive, forcing everyone to pay for standardized in-set decoding chips is not fair.

“We do not . . . believe it is fair to impose what amounts to a regressive excise tax on all purchasers of television sets in order to benefit a small, albeit deserving, minority,” Friel told congressmen.

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Friel said the potential impact of the legislation is being exaggerated because those people who now can’t afford decoder boxes certainly couldn’t afford new TVs.

“We feel very strongly that we should try to help the hearing-impaired, but raising the cost of all televisions sets is not the answer,” said Cynthia Upson, EIA’s director of communications. “This is unprecedented legislation to have this cost mandated to every television user. This country is based on letting consumers have choices.”

For the deaf community, “choice” is the central issue as well.

“This is not a mere luxury feature for deaf Americans,” Larry Goldberg, director of the Caption Center at PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston, said. “Right now they have no options about how they can enjoy television.

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“Captions are there, through at least 390 hours of broadcast, cable and home videos each week,” said Goldberg, whose nonprofit group is the second-largest supplier of captioning services to network programs in the nation. “Television manufacturers wouldn’t think of making TVs that are, say, unable to receive Channel 2 or Channel 4, and yet they feel comfortable manufacturing TVs that are unable to receive . . . closed-captioning information.”

Supporters of the legislation--who include the National Parent Teachers Assn., International Reading Assn., National Education Assn. and American Assn. of Retired Persons--foresee benefits from standardized closed-captioning beyond its service to the deaf.

Sy DuBow, legal director of the National Assn. of the Deaf Legal Defense Fund, points out that captioned programs can aid people trying to improve English reading skills--whether they are among the estimated 27 million adult Americans with literacy problems, the millions of immigrants learning English as a second language, or children learning to read.

“Studies have shown that closed captioning has improved literacy skills,” DuBow said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 4 or 40: It can help.”

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