FCC order aims to clear up who's responsible for captioning video

In a meeting that garnered plenty of attention around its decision on the future of cable set-top boxes, the Federal Communications Commission also firmed up some compliance rules around closed captioning.

Video programming distributors like broadcasters and pay-TV operators no longer hold most of the responsibility for making sure closed captions are visible and readable. The FCC is shifting some of that burden to video programming owners and producers following a 5-0 vote to adopt a second order that shares out captioning requirements. And those changes will certainly affect online video providers and producers alike.

"Today's Commission action on closed captioning is about responsibility," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement released following Thursday's vote. "Those who produce and distribute video for television have a shared responsibility to ensure that closed captioning is both available and accurate."

The increasing availability of video content online meant it wasn't always clear what video had to be captioned by law, and which was optional. It also complicated the issue of who is responsible for making sure closed captions are included with video on multiple platforms. "The point of the FCC's Second Report and Order is to enhance the accessibility of video programming on television and online," said Lily Bond in a 3Play Media blog post. 3Play provides captioning services to OTT video providers like Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and MIT. "Implicating video programmers, who are most often involved in the provision and creation of closed captions, in the FCC's official compliance rules is meant to ensure that providing high quality captions for video content is a priority for programmers."

Communications accessibility has been one of Wheeler's priorities during his term as commissioner, and closed captioning has been one of the most visible of the FCC's regulatory changes. The commission already is in the midst of implementing a staggered rollout of closed captioning requirements for various types of video. For example, video content being delivered over the top that was previously broadcast on television must now be captioned online; however, "montage" style video clips made from previously broadcast, full-length programming won't have to be captioned until January 2017.

The latest order provides a compliance and enforcement framework for these updated closed-captioning rules.

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly approved the measure in part, and dissented in part, saying in a statement published after the vote that the closed captioning rules had a couple of key inconsistencies. For one, consumers' closed captioning quality complaints would be subjected to "an extremely convoluted mechanism" which would see those complaints forwarded from a video distributor to the programmer and then back again," he said. "Under this structure, the personal consumer information would be redacted before the forwarding could occur.  But during consideration of an item last month, it was alleged that it was too difficult to redact the personal information for broadcasters' correspondence files...  How can it be that redacting personal information and the creation of a unique identifier is easy for video distributors but not for broadcasters?"

Second, O'Rielly said, the three-tiered compliance ladder created as part of the new rules could be overridden by the Enforcement Bureau under a special rule -- which he said "creates a fake compliance ladder that the CGB or Enforcement Bureau or both will climb over anytime they want."

Commissioner Ajit Pai likewise approved in part and dissented in part, for similar reasons, noting that "the devil is in the details." However, he said, "Through some tough negotiations, we were able to significantly limit the possibility of evading the ladder."

For more:
- see Wheeler's statement
- see the FCC release
- see this JDSupra article
- see this 3Play Media blog post
- and this Lexology post

Related articles:
FCC approves controversial set-top proposal by 3-2 vote
3Play Media aims to lower online video captioning barriers as accessibility advocates step up their game
Closed captioning's role becomes more complex in multiscreen world
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