New regulations needed for Internet real-time captioning
On March 16, 1980, a phrase started appearing regularly on our TV screens: “Closed-Captioned for the Hearing Impaired." Most of us didn’t pay much attention, but for the millions of people who were deaf or had hearing loss it was a milestone in broadcast communication. Thanks to an Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate, suddenly TV shows previously inaccessible for those with hearing loss now became accessible.
Fast forward to today. TV as we know it is changing at a rapid pace. More and more people are turning to the Internet for their televised entertainment; online streaming is becoming the norm. A recent survey by Adobe, the popular video streaming software, confirmed Internet viewing is on the rise, quickly advancing on regular television. According to their survey, TV viewing over the Internet grew by 388 percent from 2013 to 2014 — and their survey didn’t even include the most popular streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu). However, unlike regular TV, captioning services for the Internet are not yet up to speed, leaving those with hearing loss at a distinct disadvantage.
Those with hearing loss are once again being left behind.
More than 48 million adults in the U.S. are deaf or have hearing loss. With real-time captioning unavailable for most web and news sites, those with hearing loss have to rely on delayed captioning, recaps or tweets instead of being able to be a part of events as they unfold. And currently only one major news site, CNN, provides real-time captioning in their livestream. But the other major news sites such as MSNBC, Fox, ABC and C-Span do not yet provide any real-time captioning.
In years past, FCC regulations on closed-captioning have mostly focused on television. The Internet, unfortunately, has yet to catch up, and it could take years until we see significant change.
We can look to the history of closed-captioning for television to see how future changes to Internet captioning might unfold. In 1972, the first captioning agency, the Caption Center, was founded; Boston’s WGBH offered open-captioning of re-broadcasts of "The French Chef with Julia Child." Open-captioning meant all viewers could see the captions, though, and those without hearing loss found it distracting. So in 1974 the Caption Center invented a device that would only display captions for those that wanted them.WGBH offered open-captioning of re-broadcasts of "The French Chef with Julia Child." Open-captioning meant all viewers could see the captions, though, and those without hearing loss found it distracting. So in 1974 the Caption Center invented a device that would only display captions for those that wanted them.
In 1979, the FCC formed the NCI, a non-profit dedicated to providing access to and promoting closed-captioning. The first closed-captioned programs, on ABC, NBC and PBS, were broadcast on March 16, 1980, and by 1990, by law all TVs 16 inches or larger were required to contain closed caption decoders. In the late '90s, deaf advocacy groups successfully lobbied to get the FCC to force both broadcast and cable TV to provide live captioning. In 2006, the FCC ruled all broadcast and cable channels must offer closed captioning. But now, in an Internet world, the FCC needs to start fresh with regulations for captioning that address the public’s changing needs.
As early as 2012 the FCC had already set up a few rules for broadcasters regarding what they post online. Since declaring the Internet a public utility in February 2015, the FCC has the capability to enforce even greater regulation, including captioning services. As of April 2015, programs shown on TV and posted in full online must have closed captioning within 45 days of airing, and by April 2016, closed-captioning must occur within 15 days. But that doesn’t solve the entire problem: live programming is still exempt from the captioning rules.
What does this mean? According to a recent Time magazine article, it means the deaf and those with hearing loss are “left out of cultural, collective moments as they happen.” But there is something more important at stake. In the event of a live news broadcast that is a matter of safety, such as an important weather update or an order to shelter in place, lives could be at stake if emergency real-time captioning (currently only available in some areas) is not available to all.
As of right now, voice-to-text software hasn’t improved enough in its accuracy to be a viable option. And the equipment and staff needed to provide true real-time captioning is too expensive for most local stations to be able to afford. In short? Like television closed-captioning, real-time closed captioning on the Internet won’t happen unless the FCC mandates it.
But there is hope. Taking a page from the advocacy groups of the '70s and '80s that successfully lobbied for television closed-captioning and brought accessibility to millions, community-based advocacy groups are now pushing for regulations that would make the Internet just as accessible. Change may be slow, but the past has proven it is indeed possible.