Captions going digital

The FCC has imposed a number of new closed-captioning obligations on TV licensees and other video programming distributors, and the commission is soliciting comments on even more changes to the closed-captioning rules as TV makes its transition to all-digital.

In November, the commission released a declaratory ruling, order and notice of proposed rulemaking (DRONPRM) in which it announced rule changes and proposals, but the effective dates of the changes and the deadlines for comments and reply comments did not appear in the Federal Register until mid-January.

Rules effective in February

In the new rules section of the DRONPRM, the FCC has made it clear that there is no exemption for DTV programming just because it is digital. Likewise, the transition to all-digital broadcasting in June does not relieve stations of the obligation to continue captioning programming in a manner that can be decoded by analog TV sets. Finally, the transition does not create the opportunity for stations to claim the self-implementing exemption for channels with less than $3 million in revenue or the new network exemption just because of a change from primarily analog to all-digital operation. All captioning obligations remain in place and apply to DTV operations.

Requirements temporarily suspended

The new contact information requirements and complaint process were adopted, but they are not yet in effect. Those items require review and approval by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and were subject to comment through March 16. Also under review are the newly-adopted FCC complaint process and the new rules requiring that stations both provide and keep updated contact information for complaints and inquiries. These requirements will be effective 30 days after OMB approval.

Proposed rulemaking

The subject matter at issue in the proposed rulemaking portion of the DRONPRM is how Section 79.1(d)(12) of the commission's rules should apply to DTV broadcasting. That section provides that no video programming provider will have to pay to caption “any channel of video programming producing annual gross revenues of less than $3,000,000 during the previous calendar year.” But it is not clear how that exemption would or should be applied to multichannel DTV broadcasting. For example, should each digital stream be deemed a separate and independent channel for these purposes, or should the term channel be deemed to mean the entire 6MHz of spectrum used by the licensee?

Also, the commission has questioned whether $3 million is an appropriate threshold and whether a single threshold, as opposed to some sliding scale, might be a better fit. Notwithstanding the exemption, all video providers will still be required to pass through any captioning that has already been included by program producers.

Comments on the FCC's rulemaking proposals were due in February. BE

Harry C. Martin is a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, PLC.


  • April 1 is the deadline for TV stations in the following states to file their biennial ownership reports: Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
  • April 1 is the deadline for TV stations and Class A stations in the following states and territories to place their 2009 EEO public file reports in their public files and post them on their Web sites: Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania,Tennessee and Texas. LPTV stations originating programming in these states, which are not required to have public files, must post these reports on their Web sites and keep them in their station records.
  • Also on April 1, all TV stations (but not Class A stations) in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, regardless of the number of persons employed at the station, must electronically file an EEO midterm report using FCC Form 397.

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