FCC Implements New Internet Closed-Captioning Rules

Published August 26, 2011

The Federal Communications Commission’s Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee recently set in motion a six-month time period for new rules requiring closed-captioning services on the Internet.

“Given the goal of providing closed captioning for television programming delivered over the Internet, the fundamental performance objective is that regardless of how the captioned video is transmitted and decoded, the consumer must be given an experience that is equal to, if not better than, the experience provided as the content was originally aired on television,” the FCC said in its report.

Broadcasters will have until January 2012 to provide captioning for live and “near-live” programming provided online. By June 2012, the rule will also encompass all prerecorded programming that is “substantially edited” for delivery over the Internet. The new rules allow for Internet delivery of the single standard interchange format now used for digital television.

‘Technically Challenging’
Yet with all of the different devices used to view Internet programming—from desktop computers and Internet-enabled televisions to small, handheld “smart” devices, delivering such closed-captioned programming can be technically challenging, said Brian Hurh, an associate with Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, DC. “Ever since the initial rules for closed captioning came out, it was inevitable that there would be some progression on this issue. How feasible it is remains to be seen.”

WGBH-TV in Boston first introduced closed captioning in the 1970s on Julia Child’s PBS program, The French Chef. Congress mandated closed captioning for most television programming in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. President Obama extended closed captioning to Internet-distributed TV shows under the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which he signed in October 2010.

Detailed Requirements
The FCC’s report recommends performance objectives, technical standards, and regulations. Websites are not allowed to lose any information in the transcoding process, including spelling, positioning, timing, and presentation. Carriers of Internet media must support closed captioning and end-user display in terms of language, character color, opacity, size, edge, background, and font. Exemptions may be granted for certain features.

For example, a gray-scale screen may be substituted for color choices. “User settings are new to players which support Internet-delivered video, and will require time and effort to implement,” the report said.

That can provide some technical problems for broadcasters as they work with the various form factors of different devices. Some mobile devices have very different underlying support technology from one another and from desktop devices.

Hurh said he expects the FCC to be “reasonable” about these differences and to allow sufficient phase-in time.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.