FCC Item Provides Clip Captioning Flexibility

The FCC will give broadcasters and cable operators some flexibility when it comes to adding time-sensitive and "advanced" online clips to their closed captioning responsibilities, but will apply the same quality standards it applies to full-length TV shows and their full-length online incarnations.

That is according to an FCC official familiar with the item, a combination order on reconsideration and further notice of proposed rulemaking, that was circulated to the commissioners for a vote at its July 11 open meeting. The item is expected to be approved.

The FCC already requires captioning of online versions of full-length captioned programming that originally aired on broadcast or cable television, but had not decided whether that rule should apply to clips. It now will, with some caveats.

As of Jan. 1, 2016, the FCC will mandate that "straight-lift" clips--taken directly from a single show--must be closed captioned, but will provide an extra year to caption "montages" of clips from different sources or a mix of captioned and noncaptioned programming. The mandate does not apply to library product before the compliance dates, saying that would be economically burdensome.

There will be a July 1, 2017 trigger for captioning live programming, but with a 12-hour grace period in which to do it. There will be no such grace period for near-live programming. The FCC concludes that there is enough time to caption clips even a short time after sometime airs live on TV with captions.

The mandate will apply to sites run by the programmer who aired the original clip "if the person or entity acting as the distributor or provider also exhibited the associated video programming on TV with captions." And the mandate applies regardless of the content or length of the clip."

The FCC is not mandating that time-sensitive clips--like breaking news--or advanced clips--of programming before it airs on TV--be captioned, instead asking in the further notice whether advanced clips should fall under the mandate, and encouraging everybody to make their best efforts to caption news clips when feasible--The National Cable & Telecommunications Association had pointed out that cable ops were already making voluntary efforts to do just that but in some cases it was important to "quickly convey" information without captions, even if it aired originally with captions on TV. NCTA urged the FCC not to adopt a rule that would prevent that. The item encourages the industry to caption the clips at the time they are posted online "or as soon as possible thereafter or whenever possible."

As for advanced clips, which are ones that preceded a shows airing--like an online promo for an on-air show--the FCC asks in the further notice whether it should apply the IP captioning rules to video clips after the compliance date but before the associated programming airs on TV with captions. The commission said it would be helpful to get more information on the technological challenges before it resolves the issue.

While both NCTA and the National Association of Broadcasters had suggested the FCC not hold clips to the same quality standards as on-air captions, the item as currently constituted applies the same standard as it did to full-length shows online, which is that they be at least as good as the on-air versions, with some minimal variation allowed, per the statute.

The FCC's Media Bureau last December sought comment on the state of closed captioning of IP-delivered video clips and whether the online captioning mandate should be extended to clips.

The captioning mandate applies to broadcast and cable content re-airing on the Web, not to Web-original video.

In implementing the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), the FCC concluded that in applying the mandate to the owners and distributors of IP-delivered video, it would initially apply it only to full-length programming and not to clips. But it also interpreted the statute to mean that Congress left open the question of whether it would eventually also apply to those clips given the "at this time" language relating to the full-length programming mandate. At the time, the commission said it might later decide it was best to require captioning clips, expected the industry to do so as well, and would monitor its progress.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.