FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION
Closed Captioning of Video Programming
As directed by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (Commission or FCC) has adopted rules requiring closed captioning of most, though not all, television programming. The rules became effective January 1, 1998. This fact sheet provides general answers to questions that may arise about the implementation of the rules. The rules can be found at the Commission's web site, www.fcc.gov/dtf/caption.html. For further information, please contact the Commission toll-free at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); TTY 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322); or (202) 418-7096; TTY (202) 418-7172.
Q: What is closed captioning?
A: Closed captioning is an assistive technology designed to provide access to television for persons who are deaf and hard of hearing. It is similar to subtitles in that it displays the audio portion of a television signal as printed words on the television screen. Unlike subtitles, however, closed captioning is hidden as encoded data transmitted within the television signal, and provides information about background noise and sound effects. A viewer wishing to see closed captions must use a set-top decoder or a television with built-in decoder circuitry. Since July 1993, all television sets with screens thirteen inches or larger have had built-in decoder circuitry.
Q: Who is required to provide closed captions under the new rules?
A: The rules require people or companies that distribute television programs directly to home viewers ("video program distributors") to make sure that those programs are captioned. Video program distributors include local broadcast television stations, satellite television services (such as DirecTV, Primestar, and the Dish Network), local cable television operators, and other companies that distribute video programming directly to the home. In some situations, video program providers will be responsible for captioning programs. A video program provider could be a television program network (for example, ABC, NBC, UPN, Lifetime, A&E) or other company that makes a particular television program.
Q: When will I be able to see more closed captioned programming?
A: The rules create transition periods during which the amount of closed captioned programming will gradually increase. Under the rules, there are two categories of programming: new programming and pre-rule programming. Certain exemptions from the captioning requirements apply to both categories of programming.
New Programming: Programs first shown on or after January 1, 1998, are considered "new" programming. Under the rules, 100% of new, non-exempt programs must be captioned over an eight year period. Compliance with the captioning requirements will be determined on a quarterly basis. In other words, the Commission will look at how much captioning is provided in each of the four calendar quarters: January-March; April-June; July-September; and October-December.
The rules set up the following schedule for new programs: In 2000 and 2001, video program distributors must provide at least 450 hours of captioned new programs per channel during each calendar quarter. In 2002 and 2003, that number will increase to 900 hours per channel, per calendar quarter. In 2004 and 2005, that number will increase to an average of 1,350 hours per channel, per calendar quarter. As of January 1, 2006, 100% of the distributor's new, nonexempt programs must be provided with captions.
Pre-rule Programming: Programs first shown before January 1, 1998, are considered "pre-rule" programming. Under the rules, 75% of pre-rule, non-exempt programs must be captioned over a ten year period.
The rules set up the following schedule for pre-rule programming: At least 30% of a channel's pre-rule programming during each calendar quarter must be captioned beginning on January 1, 2003. Beginning January 1, 2008, distributors must provide captions for 75% of the pre-rule, non-exempt programs they distribute on each channel during each calendar quarter.
Q: Do the rules require all television programs to be closed captioned?
A: No. As noted above, the rules provide certain exemptions from the captioning requirements. First, the rules exempt all video program providers who have revenues of less than $3,000,000 per year. This exemption is based on the conclusion that it would be economically burdensome for some programmers or providers to offer captioning. In addition, program providers are permitted to limit their spending on captioning to 2% of their annual gross revenues.
The following specific types of programs do not have to be closed captioned:
Programs which are in a language other than English or Spanish
Programs or portions of programs for which the audio content is displayed visually (for example, program schedule channels or community bulletin boards)
Programs that consist mainly of non-vocal music (for example, a televised symphony or ballet performance)
Public service announcements, promotional announcements, and interstitial programs (i.e., brief programs used as a bridge between two longer programs) that are no more than ten minutes long. (However, PSAs of any length which are federally funded or produced must be captioned under Title IV of the Americans With Disabilities Act.)
Programs transmitted by the instructional television fixed service (ITFS)
Instructional programming that is locally produced by public television stations for use in grades K-12 and post secondary schools. (This is intended to cover programming that is narrowly distributed to individual educational institutions, and is similar to the exemption for ITFS programming.)
Programs shown on new networks for the first four years of the network's operation
Programs which are shown between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. local time
Locally produced and distributed non-news programming with no repeat value (e.g, parades and school sports)
Commercials which are no more than five minutes long
In addition, a video program provider or distributor may file a written request with the FCC for an individual undue burden exemption from the captioning rules, if supplying captions would cause the provider or distributor significant difficulty or expense under its particular circumstances.
Q: Will these types of programs always be exempt, or will they be required to be captioned in the future?
A: The FCC plans to review the program exemptions at a later date to determine whether any changes are necessary or appropriate.
Q: Will I see fewer captioned programs in the early part of the transition period than I currently see?
A: No. The rules require video program distributors to continue to provide captioned programming at substantially the same level as the average level they provided during the first six months of 1997, even it that amount of captioning is more than the minimum number of hours required by the rules.
Q: Once a program appears on television with captions, will it always be shown with captions?
A: In some cases, but not always. Repeats of captioned programs must be shown with the captions intact only if the program has not been edited before it is repeated. Editing a captioned program can destroy the captions, and captioned programs which are edited before re-airing often need to have the captions reformatted. The FCC encourages providers to reformat existing captions where possible but, because there is some expense and difficulty associated with reformatting in some cases, and the Commission decided to give distributors considerable discretion in deciding which programs to caption during the transition periods, the rules do not presently require providers to reformat captions. The FCC plans to review this decision in the future.
Q: Will the video tapes or video games that I rent or buy be closed captioned?
A: The closed captioning rules only apply to television programs which are distributed directly to viewers' homes. The rules do not require video tapes, laser disks, digital video disks (DVDs) or video game cartridges to be closed captioned.
Q: Will captions have to meet accuracy requirements, such as having only so many spelling errors per program?
A: At present, the rules do not require that captions meet any particular quality or accuracy standards. The FCC concluded that program providers have incentives to offer high quality captions, in keeping with the overall quality of the programs they offer. The FCC also concluded that it would be difficult to develop and monitor quality standards at this time. However, viewers may let video providers know whether they are satisfied with the captions through purchases of advertised products, subscriptions to program services, or contacts with providers concerning the programs.
Q: While I'm watching a captioned program, the captions sometimes disappear during the program, especially during the last few minutes right before our local news, or when the picture is modified to provide other information, such as school closings. Is this permissible?
A: No. The Commission has received numerous reports of the loss of captioning during otherwise captioned programs, particularly at the end of such programming. In recognition of this problem and viewers' frustration when captions are lost during a program, the Commission adopted rules require that video program distributors to transmit the original closed captions of a captioned program to viewers intact unless the program is edited and the captions would have to be reformatted. Video distributors also are responsible for making sure that their equipment is working properly to ensure the accurate transmission of the closed captions.
This requirement that video distributors "pass through" to viewers all captions they receive is intended to ensure that captioned programs are distributed with captions from beginning to end without exception. It also is meant to prevent video distributors from unintentionally scrambling captions or making them unreadable. Under this requirement, you should expect captions throughout a captioned program. Any loss of captions prior to the end of a program or scrambling of captions would be a violation of this rule. In addition, when providing other information, such as school closings or weather warnings, readable captions should continue to be provided.
Q: What is "real-time" captioning?
A: "Real-time" captioning means any methodology that converts the entire audio portion of a live program to captions.
Q: What is the electronic newsroom captioning technique?
A: The so-called electronic newsroom captioning technique creates captions from a news script computer or teleprompter and is commonly used for live newscasts. Only material that is scripted can be captioned using this technique. Therefore, live field reports, breaking news, and sports and weather updates may not be captioned. Because of these limitations, the Commission decided to restrict the use of electronic newsroom captioning as a substitute for real-time captioning.
The Commission determined that, beginning January 1, 2000, the four major national broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) and television stations in the top 25 television markets (as defined by Nielsen) that are affiliated with these networks will not be permitted to count electronic newsroom captioned programming towards compliance with their captioning requirements. Essentially, the top 25 television markets are the largest cities and their surrounding areas. Please note that this list is subject to change, particularly if the city is towards the bottom of the list. Therefore, you may wish to contact the local network affiliate to confirm that the station is within the top 25 market areas. These markets are: New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; Chicago, IL; Philadelphia, PA; San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, CA; Boston, MA; Washington, DC; Dallas-Fort Worth, TX; Detroit, MI; Atlanta, GA; Houston, TX; Seattle-Tacoma, WA; Cleveland, OH; Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN; Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota, FL; Miami-Fort Lauderdale, FL; Phoenix, AZ; Denver, CO; Pittsburgh, PA; Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto, CA; St. Louis, MO; Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, FL; Baltimore, MD; Portland, OR; and Indianapolis, IN.
This rule restricting the use of electronic newsroom captioning also applies to national nonbroadcast networks (such as CNN, HBO and other networks transmitting programs over cable or through satellite services) serving at least 50% of the total number of households subscribing to video programming services. For example, if the combined national subscribership of all multichannel video programming providers (e.g., cable, satellite services, wireless cable) were 80,000,000 households, then any nonbroadcast network that serves 40,000,000 or more households would not be permitted to count electronic newsroom captioned programming towards the captioning requirements. During the transition period, the Commission expects to consider how and when this rule should be extended to other video program providers.
Q: How do I complain if my video program distributor is not meeting its captioning obligations?
A: Under the rules, if your video program distributor is not meeting its captioning obligations, you must first file a written complaint with the video program distributor (for example, the local television station, satellite service, or your cable operator) before you may file any complaint with the Commission. You may file a complaint with the Commission if the video distributor fails to respond to your complaint within the allotted time period or if you are not satisfied with the response from the video distributor.
Q: When must I file my complaint with the video program distributor?
A: A complaint must be filed with the video program distributor no later than the end of the calendar quarter after the calendar quarter in which the violation is believed to have taken place. For example, if you believe the local broadcast station did not meet its captioning requirements in the first calendar quarter of the year (January-March), your complaint must be filed no later than June 30 (the end of the second calendar quarter).
The video distributor must respond to your complaint in writing no later than 45 days after the end of the calendar quarter in which the alleged violation occurred, or 45 days after receiving the complaint, whichever is later (see also below). If you do not receive a response from the video distributor by the end of this allotted time period or you are not satisfied with the response you receive, then you may file a complaint with the Commission. You must file your written complaint with the Commission within 30 days after the end of the time period allotted for the video distributor's response.
Q: If I want to send a complaint to the video program distributor, how do I know who to send it to:
A: If a local broadcast station (e.g., a channel you can receive without subscribing to a video program service, such as WXXX) allegedly violates the rules, then the station is the video distributor you should contact. Its address and telephone number should be listed in your local telephone directory (e.g., WXXX, 100 Main Street, Anytown, CA, 123-555-0943) If you subscribe to a video programming service (e.g., cable television, wireless cable, a satellite service, or a local telephone company's video service), then the owner or operator of that subscription service is the video distributor responsible for ensuring compliance with our rules for program services other than your local broadcast stations. You should contact that video program distributor at the address given on your bill (e.g., ABC Cable Company, 250 Maple Avenue, Some City, NY 10001). For assistance, you can contact the Commission toll-free at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); TTY 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322); or (202) 418-7096; TTY (202) 418-7172.
Q: Should I contact a network directly if I have a complaint about its captioning?
A: We encourage you to contact broadcast networks (e.g., ABC, CBS, NBC) or nonbroadcast networks (e.g., CNN, ESPN, HBO) to let them know your thoughts on their captioning, including the amount, quality, and accuracy of the captioning. (However, as noted above, under the Commission's rules, the network is not responsible for complying with the captioning rules and it is not required to respond to your complaint; it is the distributor of this programming that the Commission holds responsible.)
Q: What should I say in my complaint to the video program distributor?
A: The Commission's rules require that a complaint to a distributor must state with specificity the alleged Commission rule violated and must include some evidence of the alleged rule violated. This means that your complaint must include enough detail about the problem to allow the distributor an opportunity to correct the problem or explain why it believes it has met its obligations under the rules. You should also include any evidence that leads you to believe that the distributor is not following the rules. In addition, you might include information about the time and date(s) of the program(s) which contained the problem. Since the rules require that any complaint filed with the Commission include evidence that the complaint was first sent to the video distributor, you should keep copies of written correspondence (letters, e-mails, faxes) or records of telephone conversations about your complaint.
Q: What must the distributor do in response to my complaint?
A: The video distributor must respond to your complaint in writing no later than 45 days after the end of the calendar quarter in which the alleged violation occurred, or 45 days after receiving the complaint, whichever is later. For example, if a video program distributor receives a complaint regarding programming aired between January 1 and March 31 at any time between January 1 and March 31, it would have to respond by May 15 (May 15 is 45 days after March 31, the end of the quarter in which the alleged violation occurred). For a complaint received after the end of the first quarter, the video distributor would have 45 days after receipt of the complaint to respond, which would be a date later than May 15 (for example, July 16 for a complaint received on June 1).
The distributor will not always be responsible for making sure that programming is captioned. If you complain to a video distributor about a program for which it is not responsible, it must either: (a) return the complaint to you within seven days of receiving it, along with the name and address of the person or company to whom you should complain, or (b) forward the complaint to the appropriate person or company within seven days of receiving it, and let you know that it has done so. For example, as noted above, a broadcast station (e.g., WXXX) is responsible for compliance with the captioning rules for programming it airs regardless of whether you receive that broadcast station over-the-air or through a subscription service such as cable. If you are a cable subscriber and you complain to your cable company (e.g., ABC Cable) about programming that was shown by a local broadcast station (e.g., WXXX), the cable operator will respond by either returning your complaint along with the address of the broadcast station to which it should be sent, or forwarding your complaint directly to the broadcast station and informing you that it has done so.
Q: What if the distributor or the company responsible for captioning does not correct the problem or does not respond to my complaint?
A: If the distributor or other responsible person or company does not respond to your complaint within the time permitted under the rules, or if you are dissatisfied with the response, you may file a written complaint with the FCC, 445 12th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C., 20554. You must file your complaint with the Commission within 30 days after the time allotted for the video program distributor to respond to your complaint has ended. Your complaint to the Commission must include a statement that a written complaint and supporting evidence was first sent to the person or company responsible for captioning the program. Your complaint also should include a copy of any response you received from that person or company. If you did not receive any response at all, you should indicate this in your complaint to the FCC. You also must: (1) send a copy of the complaint you send to the FCC, including all supporting documentation submitted with your complaint, to the video program distributor or other person or company responsible for captioning the program; and (2) submit a statement to the FCC that you have sent these copies to the video distributor or responsible company.
Q: How does the FCC resolve the complaint after I have filed?
A: After you file your complaint with the FCC, the video distributor must respond to the FCC regarding your complaint within 15 days of receiving it, and must send a copy of its response to you. Based on the information in the complaint and the response and any other information the FCC may request from either party, the FCC will make its decision and take appropriate action.