Federal Captioning Mandates:
What They Are and What They Mean to You
(Source: Caption Center)
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 brought about many changes for the broadcast and cable industries. The act also charged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to survey the landscape of accessible television and to create mandates to increase the amount of captioned programs. After providing an opportunity for consumers and the television industry to offer opinions, the FCC published its Final Report and Order on Closed Captioning in August 1997.
This issue of our Consumer Information Series is meant as an introduction to the new rules. If you have questions after reading the information below, we encourage you to contact The Caption Center or visit the FCC's Web site to see the complete 148-page report (see "Resources" on the last page).
There are many different types of distributors that are responsible for complying with the new rules; all must also ensure that captioned programs are passed along to viewers with the captions intact. Distributors are defined as:
wireless cable operators
instructional television fixed services or local multipoint distribution services
satellite master antenna television operators
direct broadcast satellite providers
home satellite dish providers
open video system operators
When will programs be captioned?
The FCC set separate schedules for "new" vs. "old" programs.
Programs first published or exhibited on or after January 1, 1998. New programs must be captioned over an eight-year period. The FCC set the following guidelines to increase gradually the amount of captioning:
At least 25% of new programs by January 1, 2000
At least 50% of new programs by January 1, 2002
At least 75% of new programs by January, 1, 2004
At least 95% of new programs by January 1, 2006
Older or pre-rule programs
Programs published or exhibited before January 1, 1998. Seventy-five percent of older programs must be captioned over a ten-year period (by January 1, 2008). There is no specific timeline for older programs, it has been left to the good-faith efforts of the distributors to caption these programs before 2008. The FCC could revisit this issue sooner and set specific guidelines.
What doesn't have to be captioned?
Many types of programs are exempted from the rules. Consumer groups are challenging some exemptions, and a few networks are asking for more exemptions, so there may yet be changes. Here are the original exemptions:
Advertisements less than five minutes long. Infomercials, extended advertisements that often run longer than five minutes, are subject to the rules.
Interstitials, promotional and public service announcements up to 10 minutes long. Interstitials are filler material that air between programs on cable networks like HBO and The Disney Channel. This exemption also includes the promotion of upcoming programs on networks.
Locally Produced and Distributed Non-News Programming. The FCC worded this exemption very narrowly. In order to be exempt, the program must have no repeat value, be of local interest only and cannot be captioned by the electronic news room (ENR) method. Examples would be local parades, high school and nonprofessional sports, unscripted local talk shows or community theater productions.
Non-English language programs, unless a program is produced using ENR, in which case it must be captioned.
Programs that are primarily textual, such as channels that list on-screen program schedules, community calendars, etc.
Late-night programs that are distributed between 2am and 6am local time.
Music programs that are primarily non-vocal in nature, such as a symphony or ballet.
Instructional television fixed service programs intended for specific receive sites and not for general distribution to private homes.
Programs bound by a contract in effect on or before February 8, 1996 in which closed captioning is prohibited by the contract. However, such a contract cannot be renewed or extended.
The FCC also exempts certain distributors from captioning their programs:
New networks are exempt for four years from the launch data. A network must comply with the captioning rules at the end of the four-year period.
Distributors with less than $3 million in gross annual revenues are not required to caption programs. However, they are required to pass already captioned programs through with the captions intact.
All distributors can limit the amount of money they spend on captioning. Distributors are not required to spend more than 2% of gross annual revenues on captioning. The limit will be based on the previous year's revenues.
Some of the fine print...
If a distributor edits a captioned program, they are not required to reformat the captions. See more under "What is reformatting?" below.
Program distributors calculate their compliance to the rules on a per-channel, calendar-quarter basis.
Open captioning or subtitles in the language of the target audience may be used in lieu of closed captioning.
Live programs or repeats of programs which originally aired live that are captioned using the electronic news room method will be considered captioned.
Live portions of pledge fundraising activities by public television stations which use automated software to create a continuous captioned message will be considered captioned.
Programs produced solely for closed circuit or private distribution are not subject to these rules.
Programs which are exempt, but which actually contain captions, will count toward compliance up to January 1, 2006 (except for those programs distributed between 2am and 6am).
If two or more networks share a single channel, each network must be in compliance with the rules. (In some cities, one network airs during the day, another airs in the evening on the same channel.)
Distributors are not required to caption programs over which they have no editorial control. This includes programs involving candidates for public office, commercial leased or public access, governmental and educational access programs, etc.
Distributors may ask the FCC for an exemption based on undue burden. The request, called a Petition for Exemption, is placed on public notice for consumers to comment within 30 days. Distributors are asked to suggest other ideas for providing access to their programs (e.g. more use of graphics or sign-language interpreters). The FCC can approve or deny all or part of a petition. While the petition is pending, the program is exempt from the captioning requirements.
What if I suspect a station isn't following the rules?
First, make sure any technical problems are not caused by decoder malfunction or reception problems on your end. Several models of decoders sold during the '80s are not compatible with codes for new features now used by captioning agencies. As a result, captions become garbled and unreadable. See Consumer Information Series #5, The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Television Decoder Circuitry Act, for more information about new features and decoders.
Once you've determined that the problem is not with your television or decoder, make yourself as familiar with the FCC rules as possible. This document summarizes most of the rules and we hope it will be a useful guide. Reading the specific rules as written by the FCC may also be helpful.
What can I do about it?
Distributors are obligated to provide at least as much captioning as they did during the first six months of 1997 (by what is referred to as the "no backsliding" provision). If you suspect that a station is not meeting the requirements to increase their captioned hours, the FCC has set up a complaint process for consumers to follow.
You should first write to the distributor, in most cases either the local television station or cable operator. (It is important to remember that all correspondence with distributors should be in writing.) A transmission problem can often be fixed by a quick adjustment by the engineering staff. Even if the fix is not that simple, the television station can start troubleshooting to determine the cause of the problem. You can send a copy of your letter to The Caption Center. We are always happy to work with stations to help make sure that captions are transmitted properly.
If January 1, 2000, arrives and your believe a certain channel is not yet at the 25% level (or 5 hours per day), you can contact the local station or cable operator to ask the number of hours and the names of programs captioned on that channel. They can check their records, called program logs, to give you the correct information.
If the problem is not resolved, you can write to the FCC. You will need to explain specifically what rule was violated and include proof of the violation. The FCC's rules do not say what kind of evidence is required. You should describe the problem and the reason you know that it's a problem-- for example, you live in Boston and as of July 1, Oprah is no longer airing with captions. You checked with your friends and family and find that Oprah still airs with captions in other cities. Include all of this in your letter to the station.
What is the timeline for complaints?
Your complaint must be filed with the local station or cable operator relatively soon after the violation occurs, namely by the end of the calendar quarter after which the violation occurred (i.e., if you saw the problem in July, it must be reported by the end of December). The station must resolve the problem within 45 days following the end of the calendar quarter when the violation occurred or within 45 days following the receipt of the complaint, whichever is later. This works out to be a very long response period. Consumers have asked the FCC to reconsider the deadlines and shorten the response period.
In most cases the local station or cable operator will correct the problem. However, if the problem is not resolved, then you may contact the FCC. The FCC will review the complaint, the distributor's response and all the paperwork. If it is decided a violation occurred, the FCC may impose penalties on the distributor.
What is reformatting?
Reformatting is the process of changing the caption data from the original version of a program and matching the captions to a new, edited version of the program.
When an older series like Frasier is sold to local stations around the country, the seller, or "syndicator," often edits the original shows to add time for more commercials. During the editing process, the caption data can be lost or garbled. In the case of Frasier, the syndicator asked The Caption Center to reformat the captions so they match the new, edited version of the show. Unfortunately, not all syndicators arrange to reformat captions.
While there are no rules requiring reformatting, the FCC does "expect that video program providers will make the reformatting of captions a common practice when programs are edited."
Are there standards for accuracy and quality?
Distributors must deliver captioned programs with captions complete and intact. This includes monitoring captioned programs and maintaining station equipment and signal transmissions.
The FCC did not set standards for non-technical aspects of captioning-- grammar, spelling, etc. However, the FCC will monitor all aspects of implementation of the captioning rules, including the quality of captions, and may set standards at a later date.
Local News--real-time vs. ENR captioning
The FCC rules do not require real-time, or live, captioning of local news. News broadcasts captioned using the electronic news room method (ENR) are considered compliant. Consumers have expressed their dissatisfaction with ENR captioning, which often omits live reports and weather segments. The FCC has stated it may review this issue in the future.
Will new technologies be included in the rules?
Captioning requirements will remain in place for digital or high-definition television. The FCC recognizes the convergence of TV and computers and the growth of video programs on the Internet and may address this at a later date.
f you have questions about the terminology used above, or need further information, please contact The Caption Center or visit the FCC's Web site to see the complete text of the Report and Order on Closed Captioning.
The Caption Center
125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 02134
617 492-9225 - voice/TTY
617 562-0590 - fax
National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
The NAD has initiated a project called Caption Watch. Viewers can report caption problems via the Internet and receive guidance on contacting local distributors.
814 Thayer Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20910-4500
301 587-1788 (voice)
301 587-789 (TTY)
To track down information for a distributor, you can ask the NAD for assistance, check your phone book for addresses of local TV stations or consult your monthly bill for the address of your local cable operator or other distributor (for example, a direct broadcast satellite provider). Remember, all correspondence should be in writing.
Federal Communications Commission
Visit the FCC's Web site to see the complete Report and Order on Closed Captioning (www.fcc.gov).
Complaints to the FCC must be in writing. Include copies of all correspondence with your local station, cable operator or other distributor, and mail to:
Office of the Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
1919 M. Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20554