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Two Years After Online Captioning Rules, Challenges Remain

More challenges may be imminent for broadcasters working to meet the new requirements.

We are becoming increasingly dependent on the Internet for video distribution, with viewers going online to stream live television, catch last week’s episode of their favorite show, or browse news clips and game highlights.  At the same time, the demand for reliable closed captioning of online video is stronger than ever.

In many cases, this consumer demand is backed up by law in the United States. Since 2012, FCC rules have required equivalent closed captions for all program-length Internet-delivered videos that are also captioned on traditional TV. In July 2014, these rules were extended to include online clips of TV programs, with deadlines in 2016 and 2017.

With this new clips requirement being a focus of much discussion in the broadcast and captioning community, now is a good time to look back at the progress that has been made with online video captioning since the introduction of the original FCC ruling, which went fully into effect in September 2013.

An Evolving Mandate

At the time of the 2012 ruling, many networks had only partial captioning support through their web interfaces, and most local broadcasters had none at all. The captioning was often delivered through a separate box on the web page, rather than as an overlay on the video screen, and formatting options were usually limited. Gaps existed for broadcast programming that was originally captioned live-to-air, as these captions were more difficult to capture and then convert to a suitable web format.

Improvements were clearly required, as the FCC ruling not only mandated that the caption text be available, but that the quality and formatting be equivalent to that offered to traditional TV consumers. This requirement presented some challenges, as web consumers use a nearly overwhelming number of devices, browsers and OTT systems, each with its own formats and limitations.

On top of the sheer number of different viewing interfaces, most television programs are distributed through multiple channels online, including not just a broadcaster’s own web site or app, but also via TV Everywhere applications provided by cable companies, and OTT services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon. The end caption experience is determined by everything from workflows scattered throughout the television broadcast chain, to selection of streaming formats for delivery to web sites, to the player or device owned by the consumer. Many features of a fully compliant and viewer-friendly system, including the formatting and style of the originally aired captions, must be preserved throughout the chain or they can be lost before reaching the viewer—even when a video player has the ability to support them.

The Quality of Compliance

The mandate for caption compliance on short video clips will not fully go into effect until 2016, but broadcasters may need much of this time to explore alternative workflows and prepare for implementation.

Despite these challenges, the captioning consumer of 2014 is presented with a much wider range of options, resulting in better captioning than was present in 2012. Basic captioning has become ubiquitous for covered programming, which has been growing as a percentage of overall web video viewing. Overlay captioning is available on nearly all players and web sites, which have become more oriented toward high-end, full-screen professional content and less toward user-generated content and lower-quality online-only videos.

Live-to-air captions, whether viewed in a program as a live “simulcast” or after the broadcast as video-on-demand, remain a more challenging application for web sites. One of the least supported broadcast captioning features in web players is an attractive, smooth scrolling, multi-line roll-up display. Many sites reduce this type of captioning into a pop-on style, which is difficult to implement without impairing readability, especially in real time.

Another area where compliance has lagged is user control over caption display features. The FCC requires TV and set-top box caption decoders to support a very specific set of features, including control over font size, backdrop and color. The same requirements are applicable to web players, and while compliance in this area has shown steady improvement, many sites still have only basic options for viewers, and even some widely used players have no options at all.

Online Captioning: The Road Ahead

Broadcasters are likely to continue to improve lagging aspects of the online captioning experience as savvy consumers become more aware of the presence of captioning on web video and the details of the current requirements. Popular web captioning formats like SMPTE Timed Text and VTT are currently being expanded to improve support for live roll-up captioning formats, while player vendors are increasing customizability and adding features like additional selectable languages.

The other new challenge, full caption compliance on clips, will not fully go into effect until 2016, but broadcasters may need much of this time to explore alternative workflows and prepare for implementation. It is a major technological challenge that many basic editing workflows do not preserve closed captions accurately. Problems are especially common around clip boundaries, or when working with captions that have a delay because they were encoded live without delay-matching technology. The best results may be obtained by re-encoding captions with a transcriber after edits, but this is a significant expense and broadcasters are likely to seek technological solutions first where possible.

A Guide to Successful Workflow

As the biggest brands in broadcasting increasingly view their web product as a key offering, services like closed captioning that were once taken for granted as part of the traditional TV experience are getting more attention. And while the number of factors in getting high-quality captions online, particularly live, can be daunting, it should always be possible with current technologies to create a fully equivalent and compliant display.

Broadcasters mainly need to check each piece of their closed captioning workflow in order—an encoder, a method for converting to streaming, a file or embedded data on the video server, and a set of target consumer players or sites—and ask whether each piece is captioning-capable, and whether it imposes restrictions on the style or format of captions being produced. If an upstream piece is eliminating key data on style or positioning, it will generally not be recoverable downstream. If an online player supports live roll-up captioning, then the roll-up caption data from the original program will need to be preserved all the way through the broadcaster’s video chain.

Embracing Change

Many challenges have already been overcome to get online captioning where it is today. If progress over the last two years has proved anything, it’s this: Where a need exists, technology rises to the occasion, and a change follows.

Broadcasters will face more challenges in meeting the new requirements, but with a look at current workflows and an open mind to the technology available, these new challenges can be met just the same. The welcome result will be fewer headaches for the broadcaster and a better viewing experience for the consumer.  

David Watts is marketing manager and Bill McLaughlin is vice president of product development at EEG Enterprises, based in Farmingdale, N.Y.