Captioning Law

Captioning Law

Television captioning has been in the news recently. Last week, we published an article in our newsletter by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) alerting people to the possible restriction of the types of programming that the Department of Education can caption. The very next day, the FCC advised us that the Home Shopping Club is requesting an exemption from captioning requirements. So I did a little homework on current captioning law, and here is what I learned.

The major legal requirements for captioning are found in the Communications Act of 1996 and amendments. The portions of the Communication Act that specify captioning clearly define what the captioning requirements are. There is an 8-year phase in for programming produced since Jan 1, 1998, and a 10-year phase in for programming produced before that. Jan 1, 2000 is the only milestone that has been reached so far, and it requires that 25% of new programming be captioned. (Did you think it was serendipity that the Weather Channel recently started captioning?) So according to the law, every station is responsible to ensure that at least 25% of the programming they show that has been produced since Jan 1, 1998 is captioned.

Are they doing it? Don’t know. Do you? And neither does the FCC, who is supposed to be enforcing that law. There are no requirements for documenting compliance, so the only way anyone can determine whether a station is in compliance is by manually recording and tabulating the shows that are and are not captioned. Sounds like a lot of work, right?? But the good news is that you only have to do it for 3 months, because that’s the period over which the law states that the 25% rule applies.

So, suppose you diligently record and tabulate the captioned programming for a particular station for three months (If you have a lot of time, you might do two stations), and you determine that they are in violation. You go running to the FCC to report it, right? You can, but they’ll just tell you that you have to first try to work it out with the station. (Work what out?? They broke the law, now punish them.) So, you dutifully report it to the station. They have 45 days to reply to you, then if you and the station can’t work it out (work what out?) in 30 days, THEN you can report it to the FCC.

And what does the FCC do? They, in theory, will try to determine whether the station is in compliance over some future 90-day period, not the 90-day period you complained about. And if the station is in compliance over that 90-day period, there’s no crime and no penalty. And if they’re not in compliance over that 90-day period, the FCC will punish them as they see fit, including (possibly) forcing them to comply with the law over the next 90 days.

Don’t like the punishment? Don’t think it’s harsh enough? You can sue the station, right? Wrong, the FCC has complete authority over these matters. You can’t sue the station. OK, so you can sue the FCC, because they’re in cahoots with the corporate media, right? Sorry, wrong again.

Oh, by the way, one other rule that became effective Jan 1, 2000 is that the use of “canned” captioning to do the news by the major networks is prohibited in the 25 largest markets. This means that the captioning can’t be done beforehand from a script, but must be done “live”, so that it gets all the adlibs, breaking news, weather, etc. Did anyone in one of these large markets notice that this happened?

OK, suppose a station is providing the necessary quantity of captioning, but the quality is so bad that it is virtually unusable. You can complain about that, right? Well, I suppose you can go through that whole procedure if you want, but it won’t do any good. There are no requirements on captioning quality, nor are there any requirements on the captionists (no requirement that they are certified, passed a test, can read and write, etc). Stations are compliant as long as there is SOMETHING on the screen where English text is supposed to be.

BTW, I haven’t even gotten into the exemptions that are provided, but there are way too many. The FCC Order that states the rules consists of the following:

Introduction……………………….2 pages
Discussion of the law ……………..14 pages
Responsibility for Compliance ………36 pages
Measuring Compliance ………………20 pages
Exemptions ………………………130 pages !!!!!!!!!!

OK so that’s the law that’s FORCING (?) TV stations to provide captioning. Is it any wonder that some stations seem to be ignoring it? As to what we can do about it, I think we must oppose any action that attempts to reduce the amount or the diversity of the captioning available.

Many of you have already responded to the Department of Education regarding the pending restrictions on the types of programming they can caption. Thanks to all of you who followed through with that. For those who would like contact information, see last week’s newsletter.

Regarding the Home Shopping Club’s request for waiver from the law, I encourage the FCC to reply, “Absolutely not”. For additional information on this situation or to comment on this issue, visit http://www.fcc.gov/dtf.