Closed Captioning Catches Up with the Internet

Posted on November 15, 2011

ITVS’s Abigail Licad reports on the FCC’s plan to require closed-captioning for online content.


Access to online programming has largely been denied to the deaf and hearing-impaired community due to the lack of legal sanctions that require closed captioning for online content. Fortunately, things are about to change. At this very moment, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is finalizing rules that will govern closed captioning — an assistive technology that transcribes the audio portion of video programs for the deaf and hearing-impaired — for the internet. The Congress-mandated deadline for formal adoption of the rules is January 2012.

While closed captioning has been legally required for television video programming since the 1990s, its application to the internet has been slow going. Only last year did Congress pass the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which requires closed captioning for the internet. In response to the Act, the FCC issued its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in September, which asked for public comment on the FCC’s proposed objectives, technical standards, protocols, and procedures with regard to captioning online programming. The deadline for comment submissions by the public and the FCC passed in October. 

Finalization of the rules will occur by January 2012. The NPRM proposes captioning only for television programming shown online. User-generated content will not be covered under the proposed rules. The NPRM proffers that the “fundamental performance objective is that regardless of how the captioned video is transmitted and decoded, the consumer must be given an experience that is equal to, if not better than, the experience provided as the content was originally aired on television.”  

The NPRM requires that information and qualities included in the video captioning — including spelling, positioning, timing, and presentation — all be captured in the transcoding process. Internet media carriers must also support the ability to change the end-user display to show language, character color, opacity, size, character edge, background, and font. The proposed regulations shift the onus of providing internet closed captioning from distributors and providers to video programming owners (i.e., those who own copyright in the work). Content owners would be required to pass on program files with the necessary captions to distributors and providers who would then have the responsibility of delivering program files intact to the end user.  

Full or partial exemptions may be granted to the video owner or distributor if adherence to the new regulations proves to be “economically burdensome.” In lieu of adopting a technical standard, the NPRM proposes to allow parties to negotiate an appropriate interchange format to allow for the “maximum amount of technological innovation.” While SMPTE Timed Text format has been favored in the past, the FCC states that its intervention will not be necessary in industry decisions. Internet closed captioning brings up new and unprecedented issues, one of which is the extension of FCC’s jurisdiction over new devices. 

The NPRM acknowledges the scope of “IP-delivered video programming” to possibly include the following: personal computer, tablet device, cellular telephone, game console, Blu-Ray player, or set-top box. However, devices which have smaller-than-13-inch screens are exempt because closed captioning for such devices are deemed not “achievable.” Because support technology varies between different mobile devices and from desktop services, the feasibility and effectiveness of the rules remains to be seen.    


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