TV Captioning Mandates: A (very) Brief History

MandatesIn a previous post we looked at impending captioning mandates for broadcast video clips distributed over the Internet. In this article, we’ll review the origin of US captioning requirements and current broadcast captioning mandates, and we’ll briefly discuss exemptions to closed captioning requirements. This article is meant to serve as a summary of captioning requirements and is not intended as legal advice regarding FCC mandates. More details are available on the website of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR) .

Mandates History

During the 1970’s, advocates for the deaf, broadcasters, and the US Federal Government began developing the legal and technical foundations of today’s closed captioning requirements. By 1991, those efforts led to a national policy with the Television Decoder Circuitry Act, which authorized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enact rules on the implementation of Closed Captioning. Because the FCC grants licenses to broadcasters – worth billions in potential revenue – the Commission was uniquely empowered to help ensure equal access to media for all constituents.

Captioning requirements for broadcasters remained mostly voluntary until the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This legislation authorized the FCC to establish “requirements for closed captioning of video programming to ensure access to such programming by people who are deaf or hard of hearing” and “prescribe rules to carry out this mandate”.

Closed Captioning Rules for Broadcast

MandatesThe FCC finally adopted its rules and schedules for closed captioning, effective on January 1, 1998. Much like current regulations for internet video, the Commission’s broadcast closed captioning rules were implemented gradually over the course of several years, culminating with a 100% mandate on January 1, 2006 for new non-exempt video programming. In January 2010, 100% of a programming distributor’s new non-exempt Spanish language video programming was required to be provided with captions.

There have always been qualifications to these requirements – particularly concerning older content – and broadcasters should consult their legal departments and the FCC to fully understand their obligations under the law.

Captioning Compliance

fcc-logo_dark-blueIncluded with the rules to create and distribute captioning is a compliance requirement to “monitor and maintain” equipment and keep records of such maintenance. This section clearly demonstrates the “complaint” driven nature of closed captioning rule enforcement: “In any enforcement proceeding involving equipment failure, the Commission will require video programming distributors to demonstrate that they have monitored… and have promptly undertaken repairs as needed.”

The wording of the FCC’s captioning regulations is constructed in such a way as to allow some exceptions based on factors such as time of airing, nature of content, or demonstrated financial burden. The ultimate goal of the FCC is to meet the needs of the public while not unfairly burdening video programmers. Though captioning is “the law”, it is also good business. For most types of broadcast content, captioning increases reach and availability, thus broadening the audience.

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