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When are video captions mandatory?

  • As you may have noticed, just about every program you watch on television offers closed captioning functionality.  However, videos online rarely have captions available.  At the same time, Federal agencies are forced to caption all of their online content.  Why is this the case?  A lot of it has to do with legislation.

    Let’s start with where we are today.

    Section 508 – Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act in 1998 to require all Federal agencies to make their IT accessible to people with disabilities.  Under this law, agencies must give disabled employees and the public access to information that is available to others.  This specifically applies to all media content published on Federal websites:

    The standards also require captioning and audio description for certain training and informational multimedia productions developed or procured by Federal agencies. The standards also provide that viewers be able to turn captioning or video description features on or off. (Section 508 1194.24)

    Stand alone audio does not require captions because it is not considered multimedia, but a full transcript or text equivalent must be available on the website.

    States have the option of adopting their own policy with regards to accessibility.  Many are using much of the Section 508 guidelines to dictate their laws.  State funded universities in states with accessibility guidelines are subject to making all their web content accessible as well.  This includes captions and/or transcripts for all videos of lectures, guest speakers, and news clips that are posted online.  Due to budget constraints, educational institutions often prioritize price above other qualities when choosing a captioning vendor.

    Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the FCC – The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that all businesses and organizations ensure that disabled individuals are not excluded from services due to a lack of auxiliary aids, which includes captions for video programming.

    The FCC currently requires that all new television programming be captioned for the hearing impaired with few exemptions.  One of the main exemptions is for commercials less than 5 minutes in length.  As of January 1, 2006, all analog programming first aired on or after January 1, 1998, and all digital programming first aired on or after July 1, 2002, must be fully captioned with the same exemptions.  Starting in 2008, 75% of all programming first aired prior to 1998 must be captioned.  This calculation is made for each network airing such content.

    Despite all this legislation, most online video is not included within the current captioning mandate.

    The latest comScore Media Metrix states that 14.5 billion online videos were watched during the month of March.  Google sites, including YouTube, account for 40% of these videos.  One of the big stories in this data is the ascent of Hulu in the rankings, up to the number 3 spot with 380 million videos viewed.  But even on Hulu, a site filled with content that was once shown on network television with captions, only offers captions for select shows.

    With a legitimate increase in professionally produced video, rather than user-generated content, online video advertising finally seems to have some legs.  But many sites have refrained from adding captioning capabilities due to the added cost.  Ironically, captions would likely help increase advertising effectiveness and revenues due to the rich data that it provides for each video.  In addition, many of the traditional caption providers for network television have had a difficult time shifting to the low cost model that web-based content has grown accustomed to.  Regardless, accessibility is a must for the 28 million Americans who suffer from hearing disabilities.

    In June of 2008, Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Heather Wilson (R-NM) introduced “The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2008” (H.R. 6320) in June, 2008.  This bill, currently in the House, would amend the Communications act to significantly expand disability requirements for video programming over the internet.

    The new bill would require that all video programming devices – televisions, PCs, mobile phones, iPods, etc. – be equipped with closed captioning capabilities.  Furthermore, it would extend captioning obligations to all television-type programming and up to all professional video other than user-generated content.  Any of the web-based video content portals will be forced to caption their content.  Finally, it also suggests that private universities will be forced to caption their content as well.

    Kudos to the sites who have made a strong push to support online captions.  Even though user-generated content won’t be mandated, YouTube has launched one of the most public implementations of captioning capabilities.

    It’s pretty amazing if you think about it.  Instead of sending messages during class or a meeting, with the addition of captions you’ll be able to watch reruns of “The Office” on your iPhone under your desk!

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