Closed Caption Deadline Nears

NAB survey cites potential costs

WASHINGTON: The clock is ticking on yet another federal broadcasting mandate. This one does not involve digital television per se, but rather all television in the U.S., both analog as well as digital. Under provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Jan. 1, 2006 is the "drop dead" date for virtually all television programming to be transmitted with closed captions.

Anthony DeMarco, sales and marketing account executive at the National Captioning Institute, estimates that approximately 75 percent of the nation's stations are in compliance with the FCC regulation, with the other 25 percent hurrying to beat the deadline.

"We're getting calls every day from affiliates all across the country, asking about the regulation and equipment necessary to implement captioning," he said. "We tell everyone 'better safe than sorry.' This definitely will happen."

Closed captioning has been part of the U.S. television broadcasting scene since 1980 and the NCI has been a driving force in developing and promoting it.

Under the mandate, almost all programming aired between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. must include closed captioning. The exemptions are few. They include locally produced and distributed programs with no repeat value (parades and school sports), commercials under five minutes in length, PSAs and promotional announcements shorter than 10 minutes, programs telecast in languages other than English or Spanish and programs from providers with gross annual revenues less than $3 million. The regulation does not affect programming that was produced or first aired before Jan. 1, 1998.


Some broadcasters feel that the 100 percent captioning mandate is yet another burden being placed on their operations. This is especially so among smaller market operations which are still reeling from digital conversion costs and large reductions in network carriage compensation.

Last month, on behalf of many of these smaller stations, NAB informed the FCC of the difficulties in meeting the mandate.

"We filed comments with the FCC and laid out some of the extraordinary burdens placed on small broadcasters," said Dennis Wharton, NAB spokesman. "We've had feedback from a number of smaller market operations who are having difficulty in meeting this financial outlay."

The 18-page document acknowledges that while the needs of persons with hearing disabilities have to be considered, such needs have to be balanced with what broadcasters can realistically provide. It expresses concern that the captioning mandate may actually prove to be counterproductive, with small and medium stations electing to curtail local news operations, rather than face fines when non-scripted portions of their newscasts air without captions.

The document cites an NAB survey that indicates annual costs could exceed $250,000 if stations have to employ real-time stenocaptioners to caption locally produced programs.

When the phased-in captioning requirements were originally struck nearly eight years ago, it was felt that progress in voice-recognition software development coupled with an increase in the overall number of trained stenocaptioners would be sufficient to provide the 100 percent captioning figure. The NAB told the FCC that neither of these assumptions has proven valid. The filing also illustrates the difficulties that surround the generation of perfect captioning and requests relief from compliance with the Jan. 1 mandate for smaller television stations.

Wharton recalled recent punitive actions taken against a California television station due to a lack of captioning.

"There was coverage of the large fires in the San Diego area last year which saved a number of lives. Because the station didn't provide complete captioning, it ended up getting fined. Hopefully this is not the intent of the FCC rules. When you are performing extraordinary public service and saving lives and then you're fined. It's over the top."


In addition to a source for generating closed captioning data, encoding equipment is necessary to place that information on television's line 21. With the deadline less than a month away, several encoder manufacturers were contacted about "last minute" increases in sales of encoders. Most acknowledged a rise in sales, but no one reported a backlog of orders.

John Spires, vice president of business at TM Sys-tems, a Los Angeles-based provider of software and hardware, said that business has been on the increase at his company.

"We are now starting to see a large upswing in orders for equipment," he said. According to Spires, the captioning mandate has also been responsible for creating an upsurge in business for a language dubbing and off-line captioning TM subsidiary, The Kitchen, which was acquired earlier this year. Spires said that the boom is not only in English language captioning, but also in Spanish, even though the FCC requirement for 100 percent captioning of Spanish language programming isn't until Jan. 1, 2010. At present that requirement is for captioning only 900 hours of programming per quarter.

Other equipment makers reported similar business trends.

"We've seen a slight increase, said Richard Boisvert, vice president of engineering for Broadcast Video Systems Corp. in Markham, Ontario. "It's not been really massive--maybe a 15 to 20 percent rise in the last two quarters. However, we are prepared if the orders come at the last minute."

Boisvert added that rather surprisingly, encoder orders are more or less equally split between analog and digital models. "Stations are adding capacity for multiple streams now and some are equipping production suites," he said.

Bob Henson, president of Link Electronics, in Cape Girardeau, Mo., reported no large eleventh hour rise in encoder sales.

Sidney Hoffman, project manager and co-founder of Rockville, Md.-based Computer Prompting & Captioning Co., said that the present mandate had impacted very favorably on his company.

"The present mandate has generated a definite sales upswing," he said. As the company markets both software for hardware encoding systems and standalone PC-based software encoding, Hoffman was not worried about being able to fill last minute orders. "If there's a massive rush at the end, we can ship out the software."


A large portion of closed captioning is generated by highly trained operators using a device similar to the stenotype machine used in courtroom reporting. According to NCI's DeMarco, his organization recruits captioning operators with courtroom experience, with only about 10 percent of those applicants able to pass NCI's qualifying exam. "They receive additional training for six months to a year before they can go live on-air," he said. Even then, new hires are not allowed to caption rapidly paced programs. "Sporting events are the most difficult."

DeMarco said that NCI's captioning is 98 to 99 percent accurate. While improvements in voice recognition software have made it possible to generate captioning without human intervention, according to DeMarco, about the best the technology can do is 92 to 93 percent accuracy. Even then, the software must be "trained" to recognize a particular speaker's diction and accent. The software "dictionary" must be regularly updated too, in order to maintain accuracy.

Even though the encoding equipment is readily available, converting locally produced program dialogue to text remains somewhat problematic. Stations outside of the top 25 markets are allowed to use "electronic newsroom techniques" (prompter script) to generate captioning. However, unscripted programming remains a challenge.


Ted Teffner, vice president of engineering for WCAX-TV in Burlington, Vt. acknowledged that the January deadline may pose problems for his operation and those of other local broadcasters.

"We're not sure what we're going to do yet," he said. "It looks like we have a few options. One of these would be to send our program audio to an outfit that does captioning and get the captioning data back on a return line for encoding. They're also selling a computer device to do this. Another way would be to bring in a steno operator and encode captions locally, but that's going to get expensive.

"Right now we caption everything that has a script. Talk shows are a problem," Teffner said.

His station airs several hours of locally produced talk shows per week. None are done live, but post production captioning will be required to comply with the mandate.

Teffner spoke about escalating prices quoted him for the "telephone" turn-around captioning services. He felt that some service providers might try to take advantage of the situation.

"This seems to be a moving target--people out there are recognizing that there's a need for this service," he said. "I've been quoted two or three different prices to do a show from the same outfit."

George DeVault, president and general manager of WKPT-TV in Kingsport, Tenn., said that the captioning deadline should have no real impact on his operation.

"We receive our news from another station in the market that's already providing captioning, so we think we're covered." He added that his station does not run any other programming that would need captioning from an outside source.


In addition to NCI, other captioning service providers include The Caption Center at WGBH in Boston. Mary Watkins, outreach director for that organization was asked about the impact of the Jan. 1 mandate on her operation.

"We've been at capacity for a number of years," she said. "We do caption work for all the networks and for several stations in the Boston area."

She explained that The Caption Center was not soliciting additional work, as the operation prefers to work in real time with video provided to the captioning operators. This would be prohibitively expensive for stations outside the Boston area.

"We think of ourselves as a regional service provider," she said.

Some program providers have directly sought exemption from the FCC rule. However, virtually all of the requests were denied. The commission reported that of the approximately 60 petitions for exemption received, only one was granted. Most of the petitioners cited financial hardship as reason for exemption.

James E. O'Neal

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.