SPECIAL REPORT: Understanding video captioning rules

All nonexempt TV programming must be captioned by the New Year

According to the FCC, as of Jan. 1, 2006, all nonexempt TV programming must be captioned. A simple enough statement, but one that has led to many questions. For instance, what's a nonexempt program? Do live newscasts have to be captioned? What about emergency information and the Emergency Alert System? Let's see if we can answer some of these questions because, if you get it wrong, it could cost your station plenty.

Captioning is an assistive technology designed to provide access to television for people with hearing disabilities, but the beneficiaries extend beyond deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Captioning is used by a much wider audience than many first think. Captions help children learning to read, people watching TV in loud environments such as airports and bars, and people learning English as a second language.

Real time vs. offline

It has been proven that captioning on cartoons helps children learn to read.

There are two ways to caption most programming: real time and offline. What's the difference?

Real-time captioning is the process where captions are added live to a program while it's broadcast. Highly trained real-time captioners listen to the program and write what they hear on a steno machine. As the captioner writes, a computer translates the steno keystrokes into English captions, which are sent via phone line or Internet connection to a caption encoder at the TV station or uplink site. There, the captions are encoded into the video, where they are visible to the entire viewing audience.

Offline captioning is the process by which captions are added to a program master. In this case, the producer or programmer sends the master or work tape to a caption vendor. There, captioners transcribe the program, breaking the sentences into readable segments following strict style guidelines. For example, captioners try to never end a line with a conjunction (i.e., and, or, but, either), and they always keep proper names together on a line (i.e., Alison Smith).

A real-time captioner enters words into her dictionary in preparation for a live broadcast.

Each caption is then assigned time and placement codes so that the text appears in sync with the audio and does not interfere with the video. After several reviews, the final caption file is encoded onto a new program master. Encoding may be done by the caption vendor or the producer or programmer. This process generally takes between three and five business days.

Offline captioning is the preferred method of captioning for prerecorded programming because the captions become a permanent part of the program master. Real-time captioning is the only way to caption live programming or shows with short turnaround times.

Adding captioning to any program is best handled by knowledgeable captioners from a reputable captioning company. Skilled real-time captioners are typically registered professional reporters who spend years updating their dictionaries so that any word spoken in a program will be automatically translated by their software. Updated dictionaries result in more accurate captions.

All programming produced by the federal government must be made accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

Professional offline captioners usually spend at least three months in training, where they not only master English and spelling, but learn to consider important details such as reading rates and caption speed. Good caption companies will not allow real-time captioners to go live without them first proving they can maintain a 97 percent accuracy rate. For more tips, see “Selecting a caption service” on page 86.

Now, the FCC rules

As of Jan. 1, 2006, all nonexempt programming must be captioned. Before delving into the exemptions, please note that this is a tricky area, so check with your station's lawyers and the FCC Web site to make sure you're following the rules.

Programming airing between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. local time need not be captioned. Also, commercials under five minutes' duration needn't be captioned. If it's a program-length commercial, caption it.

Offline captioners spend hours deciphering audio.

Most locally produced and distributed non-news programming with no repeat value need not be captioned. For example, if you broadcast high school or college games, it probably doesn't need to be captioned. However, if you feed those programs to other stations, you have to caption them.

Instructional programming produced by local television stations for use in grades K-12 and post secondary schools is exempt by the FCC. However, many states require schools to air only captioned video, so check with your Department of Education.

Any programs originating in languages other than English or Spanish are exempt. If you are broadcasting only in Swahili, you're off the hook. But if you broadcast in Swahili and English, you will probably have to caption the English portion. Also, programs shown on new networks for the first four years of the network's operations are exempt. This caveat allows Al Gore's new Current TV channel to be exempt.

Satellite dish farms allow caption companies to receive signals from many sources.

Public service announcements and promos shorter than 10 minutes are exempt unless they are federally funded or produced. There are a few other minor exceptions, so check out the rules before you decide how to handle the programs.

Newsroom captioning

Currently, stations outside the top 25 markets may use newsroom captioning to meet the requirements. Newsroom captioning means that the captions are fed from newsroom software directly to a line 21 caption encoder. It's important that stations using this type of captioning prescript as much of their programming as possible, including weather and sports. This way, the entire newscast will count towards the FCC requirements.

FCC rules do not permit the four major national broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX) or their affiliates in the top 25 television markets to use the Electronic Newsroom Technique (ENT), or the newscast script. Also, national non-broadcast networks (any cable system serving at least half of the total number of households subscribing to video programming services) may not count live news programming using ENT toward its captioning requirements. Rather, these networks and their affiliates must provide real-time captioning for their live news programming.

On July 21, the FCC announced that the commission will review current closed-captioning rules in response to a petition from the deaf community lead by Telecommunications for the Deaf, Incorporated (TDI). TDI is asking for changes in captioning regulations, including the monitoring and reporting of captioned hours, caption accuracy, whether or not the ban on newsroom captioning should be extended to all markets, and revising complaint procedures for the viewing public.

Captioning increases audience size by as much as 10 percent, increasing sales.

Emergency information

Probably the most important captioning a station can do is for emergency information. The FCC requires that emergency information be made accessible for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Emergency information is defined by the FCC as “information that helps to protect life, health, safety or property. Examples include, but are not limited to, hazardous weather situations such as tornadoes, heavy snows, hurricanes and earthquakes, and dangerous community situations such as the discharge of toxic gases, widespread power failures, civil disorders and school closings.”

These particular requirements have been cause for alarm this year because the FCC has fined six stations, each between $8000 and $24,000, for failure to provide information in an accessible manner. In each report, the FCC detailed instances where emergency information was spoken (evacuation guidelines, hurricane protection tips) yet that same information was not provided in a visible form.

It's important to note that with emergency information, making it accessible does not necessarily mean it must be captioned. If the audible emergency information presented is simultaneously represented in visual form, be it with captions, graphics or crawls, the program provider is meeting accessibility standards. The best practice for broadcasters is to not only call the caption company as soon as an emergency occurs, but to make it a standard operating procedure that complete emergency information be repeated in graphic form at least until real-time captioning has started.

Mandates aside, adding captions is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to increase your audience. Other assistive technologies can do the same, including video description for the blind, Spanish captioning for Hispanic viewers and subtitles for audiences that speak other languages. All of these options will help broadcasters and programmers spread their message to a larger audience, and they are well worth the cost.

Heather York is an account executive for VITAC, a captioning provider.

Selecting a caption service provider

Finding a good caption service provider can seem like a daunting project. As you do so, remember to look at more than price alone. Here are some key points to consider when searching for a caption vendor.


Will the caption vendor guarantee accurate captions? Are the real-time captioners registered professional reporters? Does the vendor use subcontractors or employees?


Will the caption company guarantee to be available for emergencies? Is there an extra charge for on-call availability?

Technical expertise

Does the company have a full-time engineering and systems department available 24/7? You may be surprised at the questions on captioning your own staff can't answer. You'll need help.


How fast can prerecorded programming be captioned? Three to five business days is standard.


The FCC mandates affect all broadcasters and most programmers. That's especially the case beginning in 2006. Is your vendor big enough to handle your programs among the onslaught of new captioning demands? Do you have a guarantee of service?

On-air examples

Can you see live samples of the caption company's programming? Often watching nationally captioned programming side-by-side from several vendors will show you right away who offers the best captioning.

Company history

How long has the company been in business? Can it provide referrals from other customers? Is it financially sound?

Extra services

Can the caption company encode your captions if necessary? Does it have a presence, or can it support any station outreach efforts in the deaf community? What other services can it provide?

Real-time captioning can be added easily to any satellite broadcast or teleconference.

Know the rules

According to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, all video program distributors (cable operators, broadcasters, satellite distributors and other multichannel video programming distributors) are required to phase in closed captioning of their television programs according to benchmark dates. Currently 1350 hours of new programming per channel per quarter and 900 hours of Spanish programming per channel per quarter must be captioned. As of Jan. 1, 2006, all new programming, with some exemptions, must be captioned. And Spanish captioning requirements will increase to 1350 hours of programming per channel on Jan. 1, 2007. All Spanish programming, with some exemptions, must be captioned by Jan. 1, 2010.

For all the rules, the FCC's guide on captioning can be found athttp://ftp.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/closedcaption.html.