Captions and the Cooking Show

Melissa Merchant, Katie M Ellis, Natalie Latter


While the television cooking genre has evolved in numerous ways to withstand competition and become a constant feature in television programming (Collins and College), it has been argued that audience demand for televisual cooking has always been high because of the daily importance of cooking (Hamada, “Multimedia Integration”). Early cooking shows were characterised by an instructional discourse, before quickly embracing an entertainment focus; modern cooking shows take on a more competitive, out of the kitchen focus (Collins and College). The genre has continued to evolve, with celebrity chefs and ordinary people embracing transmedia affordances to return to the instructional focus of the early cooking shows. While the television cooking show is recognised for its broad cultural impacts related to gender (Ouellette and Hay), cultural capital (Ibrahim; Oren), television formatting (Oren), and even communication itself (Matwick and Matwick), its role in the widespread adoption of television captions is significantly underexplored. Even the fact that a cooking show was the first ever program captioned on American television is almost completely unremarked within cooking show histories and literature.

A Brief History of Captioning Worldwide

When captions were first introduced on US television in the early 1970s, programmers were guided by the general principle to make the captioned program “accessible to every deaf viewer regardless of reading ability” (Jensema, McCann and Ramsey 284). However, there were no exact rules regarding captioning quality and captions did not reflect verbatim what was said onscreen. According to Jensema, McCann and Ramsey (285), less than verbatim captioning continued for many years because “deaf people were so delighted to have captions that they accepted almost anything thrown on the screen” (see also Newell 266 for a discussion of the UK context).

While the benefits of captions for people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing were immediate, its commercial applications also became apparent. When the moral argument that people who were D/deaf or hard of hearing had a right to access television via captions proved unsuccessful in the fight for legislation, advocates lobbied the US Congress about the mainstream commercial benefits such as in education and the benefits for people learning English as a second language (Downey). 

Activist efforts and hard-won legal battles meant D/deaf and hard of hearing viewers can now expect closed captions on almost all television content. With legislation in place to determine the provision of captions, attention began to focus on their quality. D/deaf viewers are no longer just delighted to accept anything thrown on the screen and have begun to demand verbatim captioning. At the same time, market-based incentives are capturing the attention of television executives seeking to make money, and the widespread availability of verbatim captions has been recognised for its multimedia—and therefore commercial—applications. These include its capacity for information retrieval (Miura et al.; Agnihotri et al.) and for creative repurposing of television content (Blankinship et al.). Captions and transcripts have been identified as being of particular importance to augmenting the information provided in cooking shows (Miura et al.; Oh et al.).

Early Captions in the US: Julia Child’s The French Chef

Julia Child is indicative of the early period of the cooking genre (Collins and College)—she has been described as “the epitome of the TV chef” (ray 53) and is often credited for making cooking accessible to American audiences through her onscreen focus on normalising techniques that she promised could be mastered at home (ray). She is still recognised for her mastery of the genre, and for her capacity to entertain in a way that stood out from her contemporaries (Collins and College; ray).

Julia Child’s The French Chef originally aired on the US publicly-funded Public Broadcasting System (PBS) affiliate WBGH from 1963–1973. The captioning of television also began in the 1960s, with educators creating the captions themselves, mainly for educational use in deaf schools (Downey 70). However, there soon came calls for public television to also be made accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing—the debate focused on equality and pushed for recognition that deaf people were culturally diverse (Downey 70).

The PBS therefore began a trial of captioning programs (Downey 71). These would be “open captions”—characters which were positioned on the screen as part of the normal image for all viewers to see (Downey 71). The trial was designed to determine both the number of D/deaf and hard of hearing people viewing the program, as well as to test if non-D/deaf and hard of hearing viewers would watch a program which had captions (Downey 71). The French Chef was selected for captioning by WBGH because it was their most popular television show in the early 1970s and in 1972 eight episodes of The French Chef were aired using open—albeit inconsistent—captions (Downey 71; Jensema et al. 284).

There were concerns from some broadcasters that openly captioned programs would drive away the “hearing majority” (Downey 71). However, there was no explicit study carried out in 1972 on the viewers of The French Chef to determine if this was the case because WBGH ran out of funds to research this further (Downey 71). Nevertheless, Jensema, McCann and Ramsey (284) note that WBGH did begin to re-broadcast ABC World News Tonight in the 1970s with open captions and that this was the only regularly captioned show at the time.

Due to changes in technology and fears that not everyone wanted to see captions onscreen, television’s focus shifted from open captions to closed captioning in the 1980s. Captions became encoded, with viewers needing a decoder to be able to access them. However, the high cost of the decoders meant that many could not afford to buy them and adoption of the technology was slow (Youngblood and Lysaght 243; Downey 71). In 1979, the US government had set up the National Captioning Institute (NCI) with a mandate to develop and sell these decoders, and provide captioning services to the networks. This was initially government-funded but was designed to eventually be self-sufficient (Downey 73).

PBS, ABC and NBC (but not CBS) had agreed to a trial (Downey 73). However, there was a reluctance on the part of broadcasters to pay to caption content when there was not enough evidence that the demand was high (Downey 73—74). The argument for the provision of captioned content therefore began to focus on the rights of all citizens to be able to access a public service. A complaint was lodged claiming that the Los Angeles station KCET, which was a PBS affiliate, did not provide captioned content that was available elsewhere (Downey 74). When Los Angeles PBS station KCET refused to air captioned episodes of The French Chef, the Greater Los Angeles Council on Deafness (GLAD) picketed the station until the decision was reversed. GLAD then focused on legislation and used the Rehabilitation Act to argue that television was federally assisted and, by not providing captioned content, broadcasters were in violation of the Act (Downey 74).

GLAD also used the 1934 Communications Act in their argument. This Act had firstly established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and then assigned them the right to grant and renew broadcast licenses as long as those broadcasters served the ‘‘public interest, convenience, and necessity’’ (Michalik, cited in Downey 74). The FCC could, argued GLAD, therefore refuse to renew the licenses of broadcasters who did not air captioned content. However, rather than this argument working in their favour, the FCC instead changed its own procedures to avoid such legal actions in the future (Downey 75). As a result, although some stations began to voluntarily caption more content, it was not until 1996 that it became a legally mandated requirement with the introduction of the Telecommunications Act (Youngblood and Lysaght 244)—too late for The French Chef.

My Kitchen Rules: Captioning Breach

Whereas The French Chef presented instructional cooking programming from a kitchen set, more recently the food genre has moved away from the staged domestic kitchen set as an instructional space to use real-life domestic kitchens and more competitive multi-bench spaces. The Australian program MKR straddles this shift in the cooking genre with the first half of each season occurring in domestic settings and the second half in Iron Chef style studio competition (see Oren for a discussion of the influence of Iron Chef on contemporary cooking shows).

All broadcast channels in Australia are mandated to caption 100 per cent of programs aired between 6am and midnight. However, the 2013 MKR Grand Final broadcast by Channel Seven Brisbane Pty Ltd and Channel Seven Melbourne Pty Ltd (Seven) failed to transmit 10 minutes of captions some 30 minutes into the 2-hour program. The ACMA received two complaints relating to this. The first complaint, received on 27 April 2013, the same evening as the program was broadcast, noted ‘[the D/deaf community] … should not have to miss out’ (ACMA, Report No. 3046 3). The second complaint, received on 30 April 2013, identified the crucial nature of the missing segment and its effect on viewers’ overall enjoyment of the program (ACMA, Report No. 3046 3).

Seven explained that the relevant segment (approximately 10 per cent of the program) was missing from the captioning file, but that it had not appeared to be missing when Seven completed its usual captioning checks prior to broadcast (ACMA, Report No. 3046 4). The ACMA found that Seven had breached the conditions of their commercial television broadcasting licence by “failing to provide a captioning service for the program” (ACMA, Report No. 3046 12). The interruption of captioning was serious enough to constitute a breach due, in part, to the nature and characteristic of the program:

the viewer is engaged in the momentum of the competitive process by being provided with an understanding of each of the competition stages; how the judges, guests and contestants interact; and their commentaries of the food and the cooking processes during those stages. (ACMA, Report No. 3046 6)

These interactions have become a crucial part of the cooking genre, a genre often described as offering a way to acquire cultural capital via instructions in both cooking and ideological food preferences (Oren 31). Further, in relation to the uncaptioned MKR segment, ACMA acknowledged it would have been difficult to follow both the cooking process and the exchanges taking place between contestants (ACMA, Report No. 3046 8). ACMA considered these exchanges crucial to ‘a viewer’s understanding of, and secondly to their engagement with the different inter-related stages of the program’ (ACMA, Report No. 3046 7).

An additional complaint was made with regards to the same program broadcast on Prime Television (Northern) Pty Ltd (Prime), a Seven Network affiliate. The complaint stated that the lack of captions was “Not good enough in prime time and for a show that is non-live in nature” (ACMA, Report No. 3124 3). Despite the fact that the ACMA found that “the fault arose from the affiliate, Seven, rather than from the licensee [Prime]”, Prime was also found to also have breached their licence conditions by failing to provide a captioning service (ACMA, Report No. 3124 12).

The following year, Seven launched captions for their online catch-up television platform. Although this was a result of discussions with a complainant over the broader lack of captioned online television content, it was also a step that re-established Seven’s credentials as a leader in commercial television access. The 2015 season of MKR also featured their first partially-deaf contestant, Emilie Biggar.

Mainstreaming Captions — Inter-Platform Cooperation

Over time, cooking shows on television have evolved from an informative style (The French Chef) to become more entertaining in their approach (MKR). As Oren identifies, this has seen a shift in the food genre “away from the traditional, instructional format and towards professionalism and competition” (Oren 25). The affordances of television itself as a visual medium has also been recognised as crucial in the popularity of this genre and its more recent transmedia turn. That is, following Joshua Meyrowitz’s medium theory regarding how different media can afford us different messages, televised cooking shows offer audiences stylised knowledge about food and cooking beyond the traditional cookbook (Oren; ray). In addition, cooking shows are taking their product beyond just television and increasing their inter-platform cooperation (Oren)—for example, MKR has a comprehensive companion website that viewers can visit to watch whole episodes, obtain full recipes, and view shopping lists. While this can be viewed as a modern take on Julia Child’s cookbook success, it must also be considered in the context of the increasing focus on multimedia approaches to cooking instructions (Hamada et al., Multimedia Integration; Cooking Navi; Oh et al.). Audiences today are more likely to attempt a recipe if they have seen it on television, and will use transmedia to download the recipe. As Oren explains:

foodism’s ascent to popular culture provides the backdrop and motivation for the current explosion of food-themed formats that encourages audiences’ investment in their own expertise as critics, diners, foodies and even wanna-be professional chefs. FoodTV, in turn, feeds back into a web-powered, gastro-culture and critique-economy where appraisal outranks delight. (Oren 33)

This explosion in popularity of the web-powered gastro culture Oren refers to has led to an increase in appetite for step by step, easy to access instructions. These are being delivered using captions. As a result of the legislation and activism described throughout this paper, captions are more widely available and, in many cases, now describe what is said onscreen verbatim. In addition, the mainstream commercial benefits and uses of captions are being explored. Captions have therefore moved from a specialist assistive technology for people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing to become recognised as an important resource for creative television viewers regardless of their hearing (Blankinship et al.). With captions becoming more accessible, accurate, financially viable, and mainstreamed, their potential as an additional television resource is of interest. As outlined above, within the cooking show genre—especially with its current multimedia turn and the demand for captioned recipe instructions (Hamada et al., “Multimedia Integration”, “Cooking Navi”; Oh et al.)—this is particularly pertinent.

Hamada et al. identify captions as a useful technology to use in the increasingly popular educational, yet entertaining, cooking show genre as the required information—ingredient lists, instructions, recipes—is in high demand (Hamada et al., “Multimedia Integration” 658). They note that cooking shows often present information out of order, making them difficult to follow, particularly if a recipe must be sourced later from a website (Hamada et al., “Multimedia Integration” 658-59; Oh et al.). Each step in a recipe must be navigated and coordinated, particularly if multiple recipes are being completed at the same times (Hamada, et al., Cooking Navi) as is often the case on cooking shows such as MKR. Using captions as part of a software program to index cooking videos facilitates a number of search affordances for people wishing to replicate the recipe themselves. As Kyeong-Jin et al. explain:

if food and recipe information are published as linked data with the scheme, it enables to search food recipe and annotate certain recipe by communities (sic). In addition, because of characteristics of linked data, information on food recipes can be connected to additional data source such as products for ingredients, and recipe websites can support users’ decision making in the cooking domain. (Oh et al. 2)

The advantages of such a software program are many. For the audience there is easy access to desired information. For the number of commercial entities involved, this consumer desire facilitates endless marketing opportunities including product placement, increased ratings, and software development. Interesting, all of this falls outside the “usual” parameters of captions as purely an assistive device for a few, and facilitates the mainstreaming—and perhaps beginnings of acceptance—of captions.


Captions are a vital accessibility feature for television viewers who are D/deaf or hard of hearing, not just from an informative or entertainment perspective but also to facilitate social inclusion for this culturally diverse group. The availability and quality of television captions has moved through three stages. These can be broadly summarised as early yet inconsistent captions, captions becoming more widely available and accurate—often as a direct result of activism and legislation—but not yet fully verbatim, and verbatim captions as adopted within mainstream software applications. This paper has situated these stages within the television cooking genre, a genre often remarked for its appeal towards inclusion and cultural capital.

If television facilitates social inclusion, then food television offers vital cultural capital. While Julia Child’s The French Chef offered the first example of television captions via open captions in 1972, a lack of funding means we do not know how viewers (both hearing and not) actually received the program. However, at the time, captions that would be considered unacceptable today were received favourably (Jensema, McCann and Ramsey; Newell)—anything was deemed better than nothing. Increasingly, as the focus shifted to closed captioning and the cooking genre embraced a more competitive approach, viewers who required captions were no longer happy with missing or inconsistent captioning quality. The was particularly significant in Australia in 2013 when several viewers complained to ACMA that captions were missing from the finale of MKR. These captions provided more than vital cooking instructions—their lack prevented viewers from understanding conflict within the program. Following this breach, Seven became the only Australian commercial television station to offer captions on their web based catch-up platform. While this may have gone a long way to rehabilitate Seven amongst D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences, there is the potential too for commercial benefits. Caption technology is now being mainstreamed for use in cooking software applications developed from televised cooking shows. These allow viewers—both D/deaf and hearing—to access information in a completely new, and inclusive, way.


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Julia Childs, captions, disability, television, access

Copyright (c) 2017 Melissa Merchant, Katie M Ellis, Natalie Latter

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