Closed Captioning Requirements

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 established closed captioning requirements for video programming distributors (television broadcast stations and multichannel video programming distributors such as cable, satellite, and other television service providers). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established rules and a schedule of increasing amounts of required captioning over a period of eight years. As of January 1, 2006, 100% of all new, non-exempt, English language video programming must have closed captions. “New” means programming that is shown for the first time on or after January 1, 1998. “Non-exempt” means programming that the FCC has not excused from the closed captioning requirements. In other words, video programming that is “exempt” is not required to be captioned. There is a different schedule for closed captioning required for Spanish language video programming. All video programming distributors must deliver (pass through) the captions of already captioned programs.

When the FCC established the closed captioning rules, it described how video programming would be “counted” as complying with the rules. For example, open captions or subtitles may be used instead of closed captioning and comply with the rules. Advertisements (commercials) that are less than five minutes long are not considered “video programming” and are, therefore, not required to have closed captions. Many businesses, however, caption their commercials voluntarily. Because captioning provides access to a commercial’s message for millions of deaf and hard of hearing television viewers, and for English language learners, captioning commercials makes good business sense.

The closed captioning requirements have special rules about captioning live programs; exemptions from the closed captioning rules; the “undue burden” exemption; and filing closed captioning complaints.