FCC Votes to Improve Closed Captions

The FCC has voted unanimously to require program creators and distributors to make their best efforts to improve the quality of closed captioning.

While there were no quantitative standards, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said this was not an "act it and forget it" item.

He also signed during the meeting that this was "just the beginning." Wheeler signaled early on that universal and nondiscriminatory access to telecommunications means doing some catch-up work on serving the disability community.

Wheeler said the definition of universal had been one of word, not of deed, in regards to the deaf and hard of hearing, and said that access to news and information was critical. Wheeler made a passing reference to bad weather report captioning, a reference to Weather Channel's critique of WeatherNation captions.

The FCC's vote came in response to a decade-old petition by members of the disability community to improve captions.

The item consists of an order on the standards, a declaratory ruling clarifying various issues, including on VOD captioning, and a further notice that tees up the question of just who is responsible for insuring caption accuracy as well as whether quantitative standards are also needed.

The FCC's 1997 order implementing closed captioning (captions that be can turned on or off) made video program distributors (VPDs), broadcasters and cable operators, responsible, but the further notice asks whether programmers and video caption companies should share the responsibility.

As reported in B&C/Multi, the new standards require video programming distributors to make their best efforts to insure that captions are accurate, synchronous, complete, and do not obscure important information.

That also would apply to online video of shows that originated on TV, though not yet on video clips, which don't have to be captioned. Wheeler noted at the meeting that he appeared to have two votes for extending the captioning requirement to clips, which the FCC last year decided, at least for the time being, not to do.

The FCC recognizes that it is easier to caption recorded programming than live and near-live, so will have higher accuracy and timeliness expectations of the former.

The item also adopts recommendations by broadcasters on how to improve captioning of news, including interviews.

“The cable industry is committed to providing high-quality captioning to our customers and we would like to thank chairman Wheeler for his thoughtful approach to this important issue," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell, in a statement.

Powell drew praise from Wheeler at the meeting for stepping up to the plate on the issue. Wheeler said he had reached out to Powell, himself a former FCC chairman, about the need to improve captioning.

"The identification and development of captioning best practices will help advance our common goal," Powell said. "We look forward to continuing to work constructively with the Commission, the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, and other interested stakeholders to evaluate progress and to build on our ongoing efforts to provide high-quality captioning.”

Wheeler also praised Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, and the Motion Picture Association of America for their contributions.

"We are pleased that the Commission has retained the use of Electronic Newsroom Technique (ENT) using the agreed-upon best practices," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton. "We strongly believe that, given the current state of captioning technology and the marketplace, improved ENT is the best way for many television broadcasters to caption their news with systems that are already in place.

"We pledge to continue to address the myriad of difficult issues related to captioning quality. We expect that the best practices related to quality will facilitate identification of captioning issues with the goal of positive solutions, not simply punitive actions. We look forward to working with the FCC and stakeholders to continue to improve accessibility for television."

There were two speakers at the meeting who relayed their own stories about the importance of captions. One was a seventh grader from a local school who talked about the importance of being able to watch Disney Channel's Lab Rats and talk about it with her friends.

Claude Stout, executive director of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, called the vote a historic and pivotal action and thanked Wheeler for the vision, leadership and steadfast support to help make it happen.

Stout said that improved caption quality is critical to excelling in the classroom, getting jobs, and competing "on our merits."

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.