New FCC Closed Captioning Laws to Focus on Quality

This article provided courtesy of Aberdeen Broadcasting Services, an NRB member

Closed CaptioningOriginally set with a deadline of January 15, 2015, The Federal Communications Commission’s closed captioning laws will begin weighing in on some much needed quality issues beginning March 16, 2015. The following article by Aberdeen Broadcast Services helps break down the new FCC Report and Order that was released earlier this year (CG docket No. 05-231) into easy-to-understand and concise guidelines. The goal of this article is to help producers enter the New Year confident that their programs are in compliance with the new FCC closed captioning requirements.

The FCC issued its first set of closed captioning requirements over sixteen years ago in order to provide telecommunications for the deaf and hard of hearing. The objective was to ensure that all Americans have access to video programming. Making closed captioning mandatory for programs was a great start at accessibility, but quality control was the next step as the original rules were fairly basic: closed captioning needed to be present on the screen. Now, the FCC has adopted captioning quality standards and technical compliance rules to certify that the quality of captions best replicate the experience of television programs for all audiences.

Quality closed captioning is the result of teamwork and compliance between video programmers and captioning vendors. The Commission offers a list of operational best practices to be followed to ensure the highest level of closed captioning is achieved. These suggestions include providing vendors with advance scripts, proper names, song lyrics, as well as quality audio on their videos. Pre-recorded shows should be captioned by offline captioners and spot-checked before and during broadcast to ensure there are no closed captioning issues.

Closed captioning vendors are also provided a list of best practices to follow to ensure captioning is verbatim and free of errors. The new quality standards focus on four key areas: accuracy, synchronization, completeness, and placement. A basic overview of these areas is as follows:

  • Closed captioning must match the spoken words in the original language without paraphrasing. Song lyrics and nonverbal information, such as the identity of the speaker and any sound effects or audience reactions present in the program, will be captioned.
  • Captions need to be accurately synchronized to match the video and audio content displayed at a readable speed.
  • Captions are required to be complete and present through the full length of the program.
  • Lastly, proper placement dictates that captions cannot block important visual content such as speaker’s faces, or any graphics or text on the screen.

Hasn't this always been a requirement? Well, not exactly. Previously, there were regulations simply stating that closed captioning was required. However, without addressing quality, closed captioning varied in regards to its accuracy. In the absence of any regulations enforcing accuracy, the Commission received 2,323 viewer complaints on general closed captioning issues from 2009 to 2013. A dubious representation of the actual problem since, until now, there really was no motivation for the viewers to voice their concerns.

With these new rules being enforced, all post-production closed captioning of video programming must be captioned by an offline caption editor. This offline or post-production captioner is trained on various captioning rules; such as correct punctuation and spelling, synchronization, caption placement, reading speed, etc. In the past, a live captioning style (writing with a steno machine and paraphrasing the spoken word) could be used for post-produced programs even though they were not actually airing in a live format. However, come January 15, 2015, this will no longer be acceptable.

According to the report, closed captioning must now be verbatim. This means closed captioning must match the spoken words precisely; paraphrasing is not an option. If a song with lyrics is playing in the program, those lyrics must be captioned. All nonverbal information such as sound effects, audience reactions, speaker identification, and background noise relevant to the meaning of the program will also be captioned.

The FCC Report and Order (CG docket No. 05-231) states the following regarding closed captioning synchronization: “Captioning shall coincide with the corresponding spoken words and sounds to the greatest extent possible, given the type of the programming. Captions shall begin to appear at the time that the corresponding speech or sounds begin and end approximately when the speech or sounds end. Captions shall be displayed on the screen at a speed that permits them to be read by viewers.”

So how does this affect the current norm? Firstly, to start it means that using a live captioning style for a post-production show doesn’t meet this requirement.  There is typically a short delay between the actual spoken words and when the captions appear on-screen when using a steno machine to caption. To remedy this, all post production shows must now be captioned by an offline caption editor, who timestamps the program using a previously written and edited transcript. This enhances quality and ensures that the spoken word and written word are in sync. Caption editors are trained to pay attention to reading speed using a words-per-minute calculation in their captioning software. This guarantees that the captions are presented at a speed that can be read by the viewers.

The FCC Report and Order requires all closed captioning to be “complete,” stating: “Captioning shall run from the beginning to the end of the program, to the fullest extent possible.”

The Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons reports multiple complaints relating to programs where captions disappeared, failed to appear, or concluded before the end of the program. The NVRC mentions the following examples of complaints from consumers: “...the first episode of [a] CNN series on the Cold War with incoherent captions, an Antique Road Show that inexplicably had no captions, an episode of Friends with captions that ended just a few minutes into the program, [the] complete absence of captioning from Hallmark Channel for weeks, and an episode of Six Feet Under that lost captions after 20 minutes.”

Haven’t issues relating to closed captioning completeness always been addressed? Consider the following, previously acceptable, scenario. Perhaps a program was originally closed captioned but then aired as a rerun with a new promotional segment or commercial. In the past, maybe the original captions were adjusted so that the new promotional spot was left blank, and then the captions resumed after the inserted spot. This will no longer be acceptable. All programs that rerun with new spots or small adjustments will be required to have the closed captioning accurately match the new segment from start to finish.

Succinctly, any portion of a program that is missing closed captioning will not be compliant with the new regulation.

The new regulation requires all closed captioning to be “properly placed,” stating: “Captioning shall be view-able and shall not block other important visual content on the screen, including, but not limited to, character faces, featured text (e.g., weather or other news updates, graphics and credits), and other information that is essential to understanding a program’s content when the closed captioning feature is activated.”

Previously, closed captioning placement could be in any location on the screen; typically a few rows up from the bottom in an attempt to clear any graphics that appeared. Captions are also frequently placed at the top of the screen throughout an entire program in order to avoid collision with graphics. The problem with this approach is that occasionally a larger graphic that contains vital information (such as a website, name, or phone number) that could be blocked by the closed captioning. Also, when positioned at the top, the captions might cover a speaker’s face or mouth. This proves to be particularly challenging when viewers cannot see the speaker’s mouth while simultaneously watching the closed captioning and lip-reading.

What’s the solution? Closed captioning will now be required to move around the screen to avoid any essential material or speakers’ faces. Timing will be adjusted so that there is adequate time to read a caption line before it clears and moves to a new location on the screen. This ensures that the closed captioning remains a vital resource without hindering or interfering with the program’s content or important visual information.

FCC Pushes Back the Date for New Captioning Quality Standards
Prompted by the Public Notice put out by the FCC, we reached out and confirmed with Eliot Greenwald (Attorney-Advisor, Disability Rights Office) at the FCC that the new firm date for these new caption quality standards will be March 16, 2015. The decision to push the deadline back two months came down to a few hanging uncertainties. Moreover, they had found that there was a general lack of informed and prepared Video Programmers (VPs) and Video Program Distributors (VPDs), because the material hasn't been aggressively presented to everyone.

On December 12, 2014, the FCC first showed signs of this deadline postponement when there was a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released. It’s apparent the rules of the original rulemaking were not all sorted, and The Commission was still looking to clarify a few areas of vagueness. Specifically: who’s responsible for the captions, the VPDs or the VPs? The proposed rules currently allow the VPD to rely on a compliance certificate provided by the content creators.

Certificates of Compliance
Section 79.1(j)(1) requires Video Program Distributors to exercise best efforts to obtain a Video Programmer Best Practices’ Certificate from each video programmer stating one of the following:

  • The video programmer’s programming satisfies the required caption quality standards 79.1(j)(2);
  • In the ordinary course of business, the video programmer adopts and follows the Best Practices 79.1(k)(1) in captioning its programming; or
  • The video programmer is exempt from the closed captioning rules, under one or more properly obtained exemptions. If a video programmer claims exemption from the captioning rules, it must specify the exact exemption.

To help satisfy the VPDs best efforts obligation of locating a programmer's certification, Aberdeen Broadcast Services has a certificate created for their individual clients in preparation to the VPDs forthcoming requests. It is to be made widely available to consumers, Video Programming Distributors, and other interested parties by the content creator.

Further Clarification
Additionally, Mr. Greenwald at the FCC also clarified an area of the rulemaking pertaining to legacy content. He concluded that, “A program that is a rerun of a pre-March 16, 2015 program and has already been captioned need not be re-captioned unless the quality of the captioning is so bad that it would not count as being captioned under the rules in effect prior to March 16, 2015.”

That's a relief!

No More Excuses
We've all been there at one time in our life, certainly in our teenage years. Remember when our teachers gave us ample time to prepare for a major exam, but we settled down to the task, highlighter in hand—only the night before?! If you’re having flashbacks to those days vis-à-vis the FCC’s proposed due date for the new standards, you can relax.

This date of March 16th is firmed and you can no longer dawdle in the hopes of more delays.

But what about all of us that were diligent in our planning and have grown out of our teenage, procrastinating, ways? Well, we can sit back and enjoy the rest of the semester knowing that there’s no late-night cramming in our future. Congratulations, you're officially the teacher’s pet.

You can also applaud yourselves knowing that you are putting forth your best efforts to ensure that the content you distribute is widely accessible, and best replicates the experience of television programs for all audiences. After all, this is a much needed improvement of the captioning guidelines and will be beneficial for the overall broadcast experience for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities. For that, we thank the FCC for making this push in the implementation of these higher standards.

Aberdeen Broadcast Services has been a proud member of National Religious Broadcasters since 2001 serving ministries large and small. From their humble beginnings to over 50 team members strong, Aberdeen has branched out from being just a captioning company to much more—providing not only closed captioning services, but language services such as translation, multi-language subtitling, and voice overs, as well as digital file delivery services. What was once Aberdeen Captioning Inc., is now Aberdeen Broadcast Services, and is comprised of three core departments: AberFast, AberCap, and AberLingo.

If you’ll be attending the 2015 NRB Convention February 24-26th in Nashville, Tennessee, stop by Booth 447 and find out from one of the experts if your current captioning quality meets the guidelines. Don’t risk uncertainty and gamble on the possibility of rejected content.

Published: January 22, 2015


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