Closed Captioning During Emergencies

FCC pushes compliance amid complaints


When our homeland security alert status switched from yellow to orange recently, the consistency and effectiveness of current TV station captioning practices in extreme emergency situations came into question. In other words, did an estimated 28 million Americans who are either deaf or hard-of-hearing really know what was happening?

"When we went on orange alert recently, it was not captioned and some deaf people got partial information that caused distress," says Mary Edgerton, civil rights director at the Maine Center on Deafness in Portland.

The FCC was in touch with several of the area TV stations in New York City at the time to let them know some deaf viewers were not told about key emergency information because it was allegedly not captioned during this recent homeland security alert level change.


Last year the FCC received a total of 396 complaints and inquiries regarding handicapped access to television: 156 about closed captioning, 29 about video description and 211 about access to emergency information in video television programming. This last number reflected an increase in complaints about lack of access to emergency information in Texas during flooding there last year.

Through Feb. 15 this year, the FCC has received 53 disability-related inquiries and complaints involving access to television.

"We encourage video programmers, such as local TV stations, cable distributors and satellite TV services, to meet with representatives of their local deaf and hard-of-hearing communities in order to understand how these viewers are perceiving their provision of access to emergency information," says K. Dane Snowden, chief of the FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

The Maine Center on Deafness and the Divison of Deafness at the Maine Department of Labor met with several TV station chief engineers about this issue, and after filing an informal complaint with the FCC in 2001, filed a formal complaint in May 2002. No response whatsoever was received from the FCC.

"I do not know why the FCC did not respond," says Edgerton. "We were really surprised that we did not even get even an acknowledgement that they had received our informal complaints, but not getting a reply to the formal complaint was quite discouraging.

"At first we were very pleased with the stations' response to our concerns, but then problems kept coming up," says Edgerton. "The hearing husband of a deaf person was told, 'Why do you need captioning, turn your TV up.' The inconsistency has been very frustrating. It just seems that captioning is not a priority."


Nancy J. Bloch, executive director of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) says that her organization's members are very concerned that emergency announcements, particularly local ones that directly affect the everyday lives of people, be provided in accessible formats.

"During past emergencies, both national and local, the NAD received complaints about noncaptioning of emergency broadcasts. This is particularly a problem in local programming," says Bloch. "We are much less comfortable about local broadcast TV stations, and, the captioning for breaking news and other feeds from the field or on a live basis."

According to the FCC, programmers are expected to rely on their own good-faith judgments in deciding what information regarding an emergency to make available. Whenever they broadcast emergency information, they must include the critical details of what is provided to hearing viewers.

"The NAD has expressed concern that, because many video distributors use the electronic newsroom captioning technique (ENCT) to provide captioning during their regularly scheduled newscasts, they are not providing 'breaking news' in an accessible format to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing," says Snowden. "The access to emergency information rules does require that any video distributor including broadcast, cable and satellite that is providing emergency information aurally must provide the critical details of the emergency in an accessible format, regardless of whether it has already met the closed-captioning hours-per-quarter-per-channel requirement for regular programming."

"ENCT is not captioning at all, a fact that becomes painfully evident during an emergency broadcast," says Bloch. "Our members repeatedly report situations where the local anchor or field reporter gives a breaking report, and there are no captions at all for what the local anchor or field reporter says.

"In emergency situations, it is typically the case that the latest-breaking information is spoken on the fly by on-the-scene reporters, and this is vitally important information that is all too often not captioned by those who resort to ENCT," she adds.


According to Bruce Hodek, director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, TV station captioning practices in Minnesota have improved, primarily in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

"There are still some serious questions about the ability of the smaller network stations in the rural area," says Hodek. "TV stations should have a contract in place with a captioning firm to be ready when an emergency surfaces. There are still situations for one reason or another where a major TV station will 'forget' to do the captioning."

Bloch and Hodek agree that contingency plans must be in place to ensure real-time captioning for all emergency situations.

"It is important that someone or some agency be diligent in monitoring this. I believe that the FCC needs to take a stronger position and be proactive with mandating and penalizing stations that do not comply with FCC regulations," Hodek says, adding that he would also like to see the FCC take a more visible approach in terms of educating the general public as well.

Bill McGill, senior production engineer at the National Captioning Institute (NCI), says his experience with NTSC-not ATSC DTV-has shown that national broadcasters do a good job overall of ensuring that their special report coverage is captioned.

According to McGill, the local affiliates use crawl devices that have a tendency to strip the captioning because the crawl devices do not pass line 21. There are, however, tools available to correct this problem.

Special-report coverage by local affiliates does appear to be a more complicated issue.

"Many times, caption agencies are not asked to provide, or given notice of, special reports by the affiliates outside of their contracted hours, which are usually the general news hours in the morning, evening and late evening," says McGill. "NCI tries to makes a courtesy call to its clients if we are aware of breaking news events undefined in an affiliate's local area."

Because so many affiliates use teleprompter scripts in place of stenographers, the system is only as good as the scripts provided, McGill adds. "In a normal situation, live-on-the-scene reports are not covered, since it's an unscripted situation. This would be more of a problem in smaller market regions where teleprompter systems are more prevalent due to FCC rules and budget constraints."

At the same time, the 24-hour cable news channels have captioning coverage for the majority of the day, so it is not an issue there, he says.

CBS Television Network says it is 100 percent compliant in advance of the FCC's Jan. 1, 2006 final captioning benchmark, according to Mark Turits, director of captioning for CBS. "Closed-captioning at CBS is given the same level of operational attention as audio and video," he says.

According to Turits, CBS captioning management works around-the-clock in conjunction with CBS News and its vendors of real-time captioning, including Vitac and the Media Access Group, to ensure that all regularly scheduled news programming, editorial updates of regularly scheduled programming to other time zones (Central, Mountain and Pacific) and special reports are closed-captioned.

"We utilize only full-service captioning agencies with more than sufficient resources, infrastructure and real-time captioning manpower so that our needs and the needs of our viewers are met, whatever the time or day of the week," Turits says.

"During the tragic events of 9/11, CBS News' emergency coverage was continuously captioned from 8:55 a.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 11 and was uninterrupted over the following 94 hours and five minutes that we remained on the air at this crucial moment in our nation's history."

Complaints about access to emergency information continue.

"Consumers state that the nature of the emergency is often apparent from the visual material on screen, but their complaints are about other critical elements, for instance, they do not see a text version of the location of the emergency, or instructions for the viewer," says Snowden, adding that viewers need to know when the emergency is over, and what steps have been taken to remedy the emergency.

"This is just as important or reassuring to many viewers," says Snowden.

An FCC fact sheet on emergency information obligations is available online at