FCC Approves New Closed Caption Rules

WASHINGTON—The Federal Communications Commission unanimously has set new, improved rules for TV closed-captioning. The action resolves long-time concerns from deaf and hard of hearing communities to improve caption quality.

The new rules apply to all television programming with captions. The order adopts quality standards for accuracy, timing, program completeness, and placement of closed captions, including the requirement that captions be:

Accurate: Captions must match the spoken words in the dialogue and convey background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible.
Synchronous: Captions must coincide with their corresponding spoken words and sounds to the greatest extent possible and must be displayed on the screen at a speed that can be read by viewers.
Complete: Captions must run from the beginning to the end of the program to the fullest extent possible.
Properly placed: Captions should not block other important visual content on the screen, overlap one another, run off the edge of the video screen, or be blocked by other information.

The order distinguishes between pre-recorded, live, and near-live programming and explains how the new standards apply to each. Best practices for video programmers and captioning vendors are outlined. For example, video programmers can provide high-quality audio to promote accurate captioning transcriptions. They also can provide captioning vendors with advance access to show scripts, proper names and song lyrics, making it easier to caption live programs. Similarly, captioning vendors can ensure the proper screening, training and supervision of their captioners and take measures to ensure that their technical systems are functional, to prevent service interruptions.

These best practices were developed based on proposals from interested parties, including the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, and several captioning agencies. The measures require broadcasters who are permitted to convert teleprompter script into captions, to pre-script more of their news, including sports, weather, and most late-breaking stories. The pre-scripting requirement will result in captioning for some news that previously aired uncaptioned. In addition, the new rules require that crawls and other visual information be used to provide visual access to certain news segments that can’t be pre-scripted.

The order also addresses several other issues related to closed-captioning quality, including multicast channels, technical equipment monitoring, and recordkeeping. It is accompanied by a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on re-apportioning some of the captioning responsibilities and on ways to further enhance accessibility to TV programming and improve the commission’s procedural rules.

The commission also issued a Declaratory Ruling clarifying existing rules defining requirements for on-demand programming, bilingual English and Spanish programming, obligations of low-power TV stations, and video programming distributor contact information.