This week ABC Family did something that no commercial television channel in the United States had ever done: It broadcast an entire episode of a show, “Switched at Birth,” in American Sign Language, with next to no oral dialogue.As a result viewers had to do something that, for some of them, was just as unusual: pay undivided attention.
“Every single viewer — deaf or hearing — was forced to put away their phones and iPads and anything else distracting in this A.D.D. world we all live in and focus,” said Lizzy Weiss, the creator of the series.Captioning translated the sign language for viewers. “You had to read,” she said. “You couldn’t do anything else. And that made you get into it more. It drew you in.”The almost silent episode (there was still a musical score) mostly held its own in the Monday night ratings, much to the satisfaction of advocates for the deaf and hard-of-hearing population in the country. “Who knew a teen show on ABC Family could be so cutting edge?” said Beth Haller, a journalism professor at Towson University in Maryland, who has studied media portrayals of people with disabilities for two decades. She found “Switched at Birth” so significant that she presented an academic paper about it last fall.The show is the first mainstream series in the United States to include multiple main characters who are deaf, played by deaf actors, including Marlee Matlin, the Academy Award winner who plays a school counselor on the show, and almost every episode since the premiere in 2011 has incorporated sign language. Previous episodes have tackled issues like cochlear implants, speech therapy and romantic relationships between those who are deaf and those who are not.“Even as far back as Episode 2, the producers have been prepping the audience to watch a show with lots of character dialogue in sign language,” Ms. Haller said, since that episode “explored how lip reading doesn’t work well for most deaf people.”But no episode had been told solely in sign language until “Uprising,” a story about the possible closing of the school for the deaf that several characters attend. The characters organized a protest, inspired by demonstrations in 1988 to draw attention to the demand for a deaf president to lead Gallaudet University, the country’s only liberal arts university for deaf students.Both Ms. Weiss’s writing staff and the programmers at ABC Family were intrigued by the possibility of an all-sign-language episode. The point, Ms. Weiss said, “was about revealing something new to the viewer — what does it feel like to be an outsider? What does it feel like to have to read and focus for an entire episode, like deaf viewers do all the time?”That idea isn’t necessarily alien to ABC Family’s young audience. There is a vibrant subculture about signing on the Internet, which has made sign language (and foreign languages) more accessible. On YouTube it’s easy to find people who treat signing as a kind of performance, whether they’re teaching others how to do it or signing the words to hit songs.For “Switched at Birth,” production was challenging, since there were dozens of deaf actors on the set, each of whom had an interpreter. “Signing is a visual language, so the actors had to be positioned so that they could see each other at all times,” Ms. Weiss said — no saying “hello” to someone’s back, for instance. Props couldn’t block the characters from using their hands, either. “Just so many little things you might not realize,” she said.Katie Leclerc and Vanessa Marano, the actors who play the teenagers who were switched at birth, giving the series its name, explained the premise at the beginning of the episode, both in English and in sign language.Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers commented by the thousands after the show, with many saying in effect: “Yes! That’s what it feels like.” At Gallaudet, there were viewing parties on Monday; the university produced a special 30-second commercial for the occasion and later sent ABC Family 35 pages of Facebook comments they’d received about the episode.A spokeswoman for the National Association of the Deaf said the protest episode — which it praised beforehand as “phenomenal and groundbreaking” — had generated so much dialogue “because the situation is very real to us.” The association has been lobbying against budget cuts for schools like the one portrayed on the show. Next week’s episode of “Switched at Birth,” its second-season finale, will reveal whether the characters’ protest worked.The all-sign-language show’s overnight Nielsen ratings were down, but only slightly — 1.6 million viewers, compared with the season average of 1.7 million. In the show’s target demographic, women 12 to 34, it drew 748,000 viewers, compared with the season average of 777,000. About a quarter of viewers usually record the show and watch it later, so the final ratings won’t come in for weeks. Ms. Weiss was surprised that ratings didn’t go up, given the online attention the episode received ahead of time. Not that she cared; Monday’s episode wasn’t about ratings.“I think TV now is so much about word-of-mouth,” she said, “and I have faith that we did a lot with that episode to get people talking about the show and telling friends to start from the beginning on Netflix.”