In the United States, viewers can decide to turn on closed captions while watching TV. Closed captions:
1) can appear in two different forms
2) are created differently depending on the type of programming
3) fall under the FCC in the United States
Have you ever seen text on your TV while watching the news or your favorite show? What you saw were probably closed captions.
In the United States, closed captions refer to the transcription of a program’s audio that a viewer can choose to turn on.
Closed Captions vs. Subtitles in the United StatesIn the United States, closed captions and subtitles look similar, but a major difference between them is their purpose. Whereas closed captions are typically used by viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing, subtitles are typically used by viewers who don't understand a video's original language, and need it translated via on-screen text. In some parts of the world, the term "subtitles" is used to refer to both use cases.
Types of Closed Captioning on TV
An example of pop-on captions.
An example of roll-up captions.
Closed captions can appear in two different forms. Live broadcasts will typically have roll-up captions, while pre-recorded broadcasts will typically have pop-on captions.
When the second line in a roll-up caption format begins, the first line shifts up to make space for that second line. The next text always appears in the same location, while the older text always moves up. With pop-on captions, however, entire blocks of text show up all at once.
Additionally, there are two standards of closed captions for broadcast television. EIA-608 captions (also known as CEA-608 captions and Line 21 captions) “were the old standard for closed captioning of analog television,” writes Emily Griffin for 3Play Media, whereas EIA-708 captions (also known as CEA-708 captions) are “the new standard for closed captioning of digital television.” 708 captions are usually what you’ll see in over-the-air broadcasts today.
608 captions allow for 2 bytes of data per frame of video, often called “byte pairs.” Sometimes those bytes are letters. With 608 captions, caption writers have customization options, including the ability to change the text’s foreground and background color. 708 captions, however, have ten times the bitrate of 608 captions. That makes 708 captions more customizable than 608 captions. For example, 708 captions support eight different fonts, as well as many more foreground and background colors and opacity values.
|Font Choice||Yes (8 fonts)||No (whatever TV renders)|
|Font Can Be Underlined||Yes||Yes|
|Font Can Be Italicized||Yes||Yes|
|Font Size Option||Yes (3 font sizes)||No (just 1 font size)|
How TV Captions are Made
The Media Access Group at WGBH explains that for pre-produced programs like drama series, trained caption writers, “using special captioning software, transcribe the audio portion of a program into a computer, inserting codes that determine when and where each caption will appear on the TV screen.”
After the captions have been properly “timed and placed,” the data is “then recorded, or encoded, onto a copy of the master videotape.” Afterwards, a “decoder attached to or built into a television receiver can render the captions visible.” Because these captions are created in advance, they can come close to being completely accurate.
The process is different for live programs. As the Media Access Group at WGBH notes, “captions created for live broadcast are not timed or positioned and rarely convey information other than the spoken dialogue. The data is encoded into the broadcast signal continuously as the program airs.”
Live captions will typically have a time delay between 5 - 10 seconds. The delay isn’t constant, and can vary even within a particular program.
There are four different ways of captioning live programming:
- stenographic captioning
- manual live display
- electronic newsroom
- hybrid system
The color choices seen in Adobe Premiere Pro while creating 608 captions.
The color choices seen in Adobe Premiere Pro while making 708 captions.
Legal Requirements for Broadcasters
Under the FCC’s rules, in the United States, both distributors (TV stations as well as cable and satellite providers) and program producers are responsible for closed captioning compliance, explains communications lawyer Scott Flick.
“For this reason, most distributors expect their program producers to provide them with a certification that the producer has followed the FCC’s best practices for captioning, which protects the distributor from fines if the captioning is deficient—unless the distributor knew that the producer’s certification was false,” Flick adds.
The FCC states that closed captions on TV should be accurate, synchronous, complete, and properly placed. The FCC explains that it understands that there are “greater hurdles involved with captioning live and near-live programming,” and as such, distinguishes between pre-recorded, live, and near-live programming in its rules.
However, the FCC offers some self-implementing exemptions from the closed captioning rules. For example, one self-implementing exemption is for instructional programming that is “locally produced by public television stations for use in grades K-12 and post secondary schools.” The FCC also has “economically burdensome” exemptions.
Once the video programming distributor has gotten the complaint, it must respond within 30 days. If a video programming distributor wasn’t compliant, or can’t prove that it was compliant, it could face fines.
Flick notes that the FCC doesn’t have a “base fine” for captioning violations—it deems each episode of a program with defective captions to be a separate violation.
“As a result, even a modest ‘per episode’ fine can add up quickly once multiplied by the number of programs that were not properly captioned.”
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