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New FCC Caption Requirements: What You Need to Know

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New captioning requirements kicked in on July 1, 2017. Here's what they are all about.

What Happened on July 1, 2017?

On July 1, 2017, online video clips from live and near-live TV programming (as opposed to full-length videos) must be captioned. For live programs, a 12-hour delay between when the clip first airs on TV and when it's captioned on the internet is permitted. For near live, the allowable delay is 8-hours.

What Types of Videos Need to be Captioned?

All FCC regulations only apply to programming that's previously aired on TV with captions. It specifically excludes consumer-generated media.

What's a Video Clip?

Good question. The FCC regulations break video into multiple categories, and transitioned in captioning requirements based upon these categories.  Here are the most important definitions.

Live, Near-Live, and Prerecorded

Live is video shown "substantially simultaneously" with its performance, while near-live is video recorded less than 24 hours before shown on TV, like most late-night talk shows. Prerecorded video is any video that's neither live nor near-live.

Full-Length Programming and Video Clips

Full-length programming is distributed "substantially in its entirety," while video clips are excerpts from the full-length programming.

So we have live, near-live, and prerecorded videos that are either full-length or video clip excerpts. Here's how the rules transition in.

Full-length programming displayed on the internet after being broadcast on TV with captions have long been required to have captions. This kicked in for prerecorded content on September 30, 2012 (unless edited for internet distribution), and for live on March 30, 2013.

The new requirements are for video clips (as opposed to full-length programming), and is the last of a series of three. By January 1, 2016, video clips that were a single excerpt of a prerecorded captioned TV program (called a "straight lift") had to be captioned, while on January 1, 2017, montages—a single files containing multiple straight lift video clips from a prerecorded captioned TV program—had to be captioned. As mentioned above, the requirements that kicked in on July 1, 2017 are for live or near-live video clips.

How Accurate Must Live Captioning Be?

In 2014, the FCC issued standards relating to the accuracy, timing, completeness and placement rules for captioning. In general, the program creator is charged with accuracy and completeness, while the distributor is charged with encuring placement and synchronization.

In terms of accuracy, here's a summary of what must be included and how accurate captions must be from the Video Caption Corporation.

Accuracy: The closed captioning must match the program audio, including any slang, and contain non-verbal information such as speaker identification, descriptions of music, sound effects, the attitudes and emotions of the speakers, and audience reaction. The closed captions must be free of spelling and grammatical errors, and use appropriate punctuation and capitalization, correct tense and proper singular or plural forms.

In a March 23, 2016 interview with caption provider 3PlayMedia, Eliot Greenwald, deputy chief of the Disability Rights Office at the FCC,  elaborated on how these rules apply to live programmming.

There is an understanding that live programming can't be perfect, because it's being done on the spot by a human. And so there will be errors, and we recognize that. Essentially, captions need to reflect the spoken words and somebody has to be able to follow the program. It has to be understandable. So there's a little bit of leeway provided, given the nature of live programming.

Later in the interview, he stated that automatic speech recognition did not currently provide the accuracy necessary to meet FCC requirements.

Despite these comments, note the following language in the FCC regulations covering best practices for caption vendors and pre-recorded content. Such vendors should "inform video programmers of appropriate uses of real-time and offline captioning and strive to provide offline captioning for prerecorded programming. (A) Encourage use of offline captioning for live and near-live programming that originally aired on television and re-feeds at a later time.”

So if there's a substantial delay between when the clips aired on TV and aired on the Internet, the best practice would be to update or replace the live captions. Though my search wasn't exhaustive, the clips that I observed on the ESPN and CNN sites appeared to have been updated.

Who's in Charge of Captioning?

In 2016, the FCC split the responsibility between the programmers who created the content, and the multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) who distributed it. According Davis, Wright, and Tremain LLP, “programmers have primary responsibility, up to the point of hand-off to VPDs, for ensuring that captioning is accurate, synchronous, complete, and placed such that it is viewable and does not block other important visual content. VPDs remain responsible for ensuring that captions are passed through with captioning intact and in a format that can be recovered and displayed by decoders.” (http://www.dwt.com/FCC-Divides-Closed-Captioning-Compliance-Responsibility-Imposes-New-Obligations-Directly-on-Programmers-02-25-2016/)

Both parties would be responsible for videos placed on their own websites.

Are There any Relevant Exclusions?

Yes. Any live or near-live video clips that were posted prior to July 1, 2017, don't need to be captioned. In addition, if the video clips are posted prior to when the associated full-length programming airs on TV, it doesn't have to be captioned. Finally, the rule only applies to video clips posted on the programmer's or multichannel video programming distributors site, not any third party sites like YouTube.

These are in addition to exclusions relating to clips that don't need to be captioned for TV purposes, which are detailed in FCC Regulation section 79.1(d), Exempt Programs and Providers.

What Are My Options for Live Captioning?

If the original video is captioned, it's easiest to use the captions included in the broadcast feed, which virtually all encoder can ingest, convert and package in the necessary formats. If the original footage is not captioned, check out our 2016 article, "Closed Captioning for Streaming Media," which covers the legislative basis for these captioning requirements and caption creation options.

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