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Closed Captioning

Closed captioning allows persons with hearing disabilities to have access to television programming by displaying the audio portion of a television program as text on the television screen. It provides a vital link to news, entertainment, and information for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.  One may turn on closed captions through the remote control or on-screen menu on televisions.

Begining in July 1993, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required all analog television receivers with screens 13 inches or larger sold or manufactured in the United States to contain built-in decoder circuitry to display closed captioning.  From July 1, 2002, the FCC also required that digital television (DTV) receivers include closed captioning display capability.  In 1996, Congress required video programming distributors such as cable operators, broadcasters, satellite distributors, and other multi-channel video programming distributors to close caption their television programs.  In 1997, the FCC set a transition schedule requiring distributors to provide an increasing amount of captioned programming.  The FCC does not regulate captioning of home videos, DVDs, or video games.

Closed captioning schedules provided by FCC apply to new, pre-rule, and Spanish language programming.  The schedules differ in each application.

The closed captioning schedule for “New” Programming prescribes that, as of January 1, 2006, all “new” English language programming, (otherwise defined as analog programming), that was first published or exhibited on or after January 1, 1998, and all digital programming first aired on or after July 1, 2002, must be captioned, with some exceptions.

“Pre-Rule Programming” refers to analog programming first shown before January 1, 1998, and digital programming first shown before July 1, 2002.  The rule states that, for programs shown from January 1, 2003, to December 31, 2007; 30 percent of programming per channel per quarter must be captioned.

For programs shown from January 1, 2008, and thereafter, 75 percent of programming per channel per quarter must be captioned.  These rules are only applicable to pre rule programming that is not exempt from the closed captioning rules.

The FCC provides that all Spanish language programming that was first shown after January 1, 1998, must be captioned by 2010 with some exemptions.

The following schedule applies to Spanish language “new” and non-exempt programming, or programming shown after January 1, 1998: From January 1, 2004, to December 31, 2006, 900 hours of programming per channel per quarter or all of the new, non-exempt Spanish language programming on that channel, whichever is less must be closed captioned; From January 1, 2007, to December 31, 2009, 1350 hours of programming per channel per quarter or all of the new, non-exempt Spanish language programming on that channel, whichever is less, must be closed captioned; From January 1, 2010, and thereafter, FCC provides that 100 percent of all programming, with some exceptions, must be closed captioned.

The FCC also provides closed captioning rules for Spanish language programming.  Following schedules apply for Spanish language “Pre-Rule Programming” that was first shown before January 1, 1998, and which is not exempt from the closed captioning rules:  The programs shown from January 1, 2005, to December 31, 2011, 30 percent of programming per channel per quarter must be closed captioned.   For programs from January 1, 2012, and thereafter, 75 percent of programming per channel per quarter must be closed captioned.

There are two exemptions to the closed captioning rules: Self Implementing Exemptions and Exemptions Based on Undue Burden.

Self-implementing exemptions operate automatically and programmers do not need to petition the FCC for exemptions.  For example: public service announcements that are shorter than 10 minutes and are not paid for with federal dollars, or programming shown in the early morning hours, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. local time, and for programming primarily textual in nature, closed captioning is not required.  There is also an exemption for non-news programming with no repeat value that is locally produced by the video programming distributor.

The FCC has established procedures for petitioning for an exemption from the closed captioning rules when compliance would pose an undue burden.  Undue burden is defined as a significant difficulty or expense.  While a petition of exemption is pending, the programming that is the subject of the petition is exempt from the closed captioning requirements.

The FCC rules provide that open captioning or subtitles in the language of the target audience may be used instead of closed captioning.

A complaint may be filed for captioning problems during non-emergency programming.   FCC’s rules require that consumers make a written complaint to their programming distributor, which may be the cable or satellite TV service or the TV Station.  This written complaint to the distributor should be sent before the end of the calendar quarter following the calendar quarter when the problem occurred; and the TV distributor must give a written response to the complaint within about 45 days of receipt of the written complaint.

The written complaint to the video programming distributor must provide specific information about the closed captioning problem and should include: the television channel number and call sign or name; the date and time when you experienced the captioning problem;  the name of the program or show with the captioning problem;  a detailed description of the captioning problem; with a specific reference to the FCC’s closed captioning rules; the complainant’s name, street, city, state and zip code, and other contact information such as a phone or TTY number or e-mail address.

If the video programming distributor fails to respond to the written complaint or a dispute remains after the time allowed for the distributor to respond, the complaint shall be forwarded to the FCC.  When forwarding the complaint to FCC, an original and two copies of the complaint must be sent within 30 days after the 45 day period in which the TV distributor should reply to such written complaint. There is no charge for filing a complaint with the FCC.

This complaint to FCC should include a signed letter by the complainant, showing that a written complaint was sent to the video programming distributor and supporting facts or evidence to the video programming distributor should also be included.  A copy of the same must be mailed to the video programming distributor, to let the distributor know that a complaint was made to the FCC.

On November 3, 2008, the Commission adopted new rules revising the procedures for filing closed captioning complaints.  These rules are not yet effective.  Under the new rule consumers will have 60 days from the date the captioned program is aired to file a complaint either with the distributor or the Commission.  It will no longer be required to file complaints with the video programming distributor.  The complaint filed with the Commission will be forwarded to the distributor.  After receiving a complaint, either directly from the consumer or from the Commission, the distributor will have 30 days to respond to the complaint.  The Commission also adopted new rules that require video programming distributors to make specific contact information available to consumers to assist consumers in contacting the distributors about closed captioning concerns.

Emergency information is information that helps to protect life, health, safety, or property. For example, information regarding hazardous weather or dangerous situations such as the discharge of hazardous material, power failures, or civil disorders is considered emergency information.  FCC require that emergency information that is provided in the audio portion of the programming must be provided using closed captioning or other methods of visual presentation, such as open captioning, crawls, or scrolls that appear on the screen. Emergency information must not block any closed captioning, and closed captioning must not block any emergency information.  The information provided visually must include critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to it.

The FCC provides that from January 1, 2006, most television broadcast stations located in the top 25 television markets and non-broadcast networks, as well as distributors who did not use the electronic newsroom technique for creating captions prior to January 1, 2006, must close caption their emergency information and breaking news reports, rather than making the information merely “visually accessible.”

Distributors permitted to count electronic newsroom technique to create their captions may continue to use open captioning, crawls, scrolls or other visual means to convey the emergency information to viewers rather than use closed captioning.

Any complaint alleging a violation of the FCC’s access to emergency information rules, can be filed with the FCC through on-line complaint form, e-mail, fax, or mail or any other reasonable means.  Such complaint should include the name of the video programming distributor, the TV channel name and number, the date and time of the omission of access to emergency information, the type of emergency, and the complainants’ contact information. With such specific information, the FCC can notify the video programming distributor of the complaint, and the distributor must reply to the FCC within 30 days.

Inside Closed Captioning