FCC’s New Quality Standards for Closed Captioning of Video Programming

April 3, 2014 BY LILY BOND
Updated: January 4, 2018

As of February 20, 2014, the FCC has released a new declaratory ruling regarding content quality for closed captioning of video programming. This is a much-needed clarification for many about quality standards across platforms, although the FCC ruling applies specifically to television.

However, as the FCC states in their report, quality standards for television closed captioning are of increasing importance because they dictate the standard for online video, as well: the passage of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) requires that online video that previously aired on television have captioning “of at least the same quality as when such programs are shown on television.” Particularly with the CVAA’s deadline on March 30th 2014 recently passed (which requires archived video to be captioned within 45 days), the FCC’s new content quality standards will have a notable impact not just on television programs, but also on online video.

So what are the new quality standards? Basically, the new rules address four aspects of quality: accuracy, synchronicity, program completeness, and placement. The FCC believes that these components are essential in ensuring accessibility. Let’s take a look at each of these more carefully.

FCC Rules for Caption Accuracy

The FCC states, “In order to be accurate, captions must match the spoken words in the dialogue, in their original language (English or Spanish), to the fullest extent possible and include full lyrics when provided on the audio track.” More specifically, they require captions to include all words spoken in the order spoken (i.e., no paraphrasing). This also means that the captions must use proper spelling, spacing between words, capitalization, and punctuation.

Further, they differentiate that accurate captions must convey the tone of the speaker’s voice and intent of the content. The goal here is for captions to maintain the impact of the performance so that the overall message is not lost on the viewer.

The FCC also includes that captions of nonverbal information (sound effects, music playing, audience reactions, who is speaking) must be provided if they are to be considered accurate.

FCC Rules for Caption Synchronicity

The FCC states, “In order to be synchronous, captions must coincide with their corresponding spoken words and sounds to the greatest extent possible.” It also denotes that the captions must occur at a speed that can be read by viewers. And, if a program is edited for rebroadcast, it requires that captions be reformatted to provide accurate synchronization.

FCC Rules for Program Completeness

Here, the FCC states, “In order for a program’s captions to be complete, captions must run from the beginning to the end of the program, to the fullest extent possible.” Many people have complained that captions drop off in the middle or before the end of programming, despite efforts on the part of the Commission to minimize this issue. Now, any program that does not include captions up to its conclusion will be in violation of these standards.

FCC Rules for Caption Placement

In response to complaints that some captions obscure important information, the FCC states that “captions should not block other important visual content on the screen including, but not limited to, character faces, featured text (e.g., weather or other news updates, graphics and credits), and other information that is essential to understanding a program’s content when the closed captioning feature is activated.” As an example, if you are watching a documentary and there is text in the bottom of the screen that states who the speaker is and what their profession is, closed captioning cannot be placed over this text, as it would obscure the information.

The new guidelines go on to require that captions not run off the edge of the screen and that the text be sized appropriately for legibility.

Learn about vertical caption placement

How Accurate Is Accurate?

Most vendors that provide pre-recorded programming (when a program is produced in advance and then captioned before airing) propose caption accuracy rates that are almost perfect. At 3Play Media, our average measured accuracy is 99.6%, and we guarantee over 99%, even in cases of poor audio quality, multiple speakers, difficult content, and accents.

The FCC’s standards do allow some leniency for captioning live programming: “Although we recognize the need for a slight delay in the delivery of captions for live programming, the delay in the presentation of live captions should be kept to a minimum, consistent with an accurate presentation of what is being said and the overall goal of ensuring that captions enable viewers to follow the program.”

It is important to note that even before these new standards, it was possible for live programming to be captioned at a high rate of accuracy. For instance, the U.S. House of Representatives provides real-time verbatim closed-captioning of televised proceedings. Their requirements? The contractor should provide 98.6% accuracy of verbatim captioning.

The new FCC quality rules should compel live programming to be captioned universally at this high of an accuracy rate.

Implications for Online Video

Because captions for video programming must adhere to the FCC’s new guidelines, there will be an improvement in quality. And, because online video of previously aired content must have captions of at least the same quality, the quality of online captioning will inherently improve, as well. More directly, if we are looking at pre-recorded programming to be placed online, accuracy rates should be almost perfect.

The new guidelines leave little room for error, and will hopefully lead to a noted improvement in captioning quality across both video and online programming.

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