Closed Captioning Decoders

The Television Decoder Circuitry Act requires television receivers with picture screens 13 inches or larger to have built-in decoder circuitry designed to display closed captioned television transmissions. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also applied this requirement to computers equipped with television circuitry that are sold together with monitors that have viewable pictures at least 13 inches in diameter; to digital television sets that have screens measuring 7.8 inches vertically (approximately the equivalent of a 13-inch diagonal analog screen); and to stand-alone digital television (DTV) tuners and set top boxes (used to provide cable, satellite, and other subscription television services), regardless of the screen size with which these are marketed or sold. The Television Decoder Circuitry Act also requires the FCC to ensure that closed captioning services continue to be available to consumers as new video technology is developed.

Is this enough?

The 13-inch minimum requirement for televisions to display captions was established because of concerns that people would not be able to clearly read captions on smaller screens. Improvements in video displays, along with new digital technologies, have eliminated this concern. At the same time, small portable television sets are now more widely available and used, such as in hospital rooms. In addition, small battery-operated televisions may offer the only means for many people who cannot hear radio announcements to acquire emergency information when there is a power outage. Because digital television sets with smaller screens can now display captions, there is no longer any practical reason not to require them to have caption decoder capability.

Today, many electronic devices, which are not traditional “televisions,” carry television-type video programming. People can now enjoy their favorite television shows, live or recorded, on their PDAs, computers, MP3 players, and even cell phones. These devices come in various shapes and sizes, but are not presently required to receive and display captions. The Television Decoder Circuitry Act’s requirement to make captioning services available as new video technology is developed dictates that these modern innovations be capable of displaying captions to the same extent as traditional television sets. The FCC’s digital decoder rules do not go far enough to reach all of the newer technological innovations now on the market. Now that 100% of all new, non-exempt television programming must carry captions under the FCC’s rules, it is especially important that deaf and hard of hearing Americans be able to access these programs, just like everyone else, regardless of how these programs are transmitted.

Many newer video playback and recording devices, including devices that depend on digital technologies such as DVD players and TiVOs, are often not capable of decoding and displaying captions. There is currently no plan to add a mechanism that will support the transfer of caption data from DVDs to receivers using the High-Definition Media Interface (HDMI) or component video connections. Many new high definition DVD players cannot decode the captions for display. The inability to view captions using these devices denies access to deaf and hard of hearing viewers and forces them to rely on older, obsolete, or lower-quality equipment and connections to maintain their caption viewing capability.

What’s being done to make this better?

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (“CVAA”) expanded the scope of devices that must display captions under the Television Decoder Circuitry Act to all video devices that receive or display video programming transmitted simultaneously with sound, including those that can receive or display programming carried over the Internet. The NAD was a leading member of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (“COAT”) which was instrumental in drafting and getting CVAA passed.