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Closed Captioning for Online Video
As online video grows, many publishers are finding the need to provide the same kind of captioning as broadcast TV. Here's a look at some of the issues and technological solutions in the closed captioning arena.

This article first appeared in the 2009 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook.

The entire world of captioning and its sister, subtitling, is evolving at breathtaking speed because of HD and the impending tsunami of thousands of internet channels.

For the world of captioning, HD is like bringing DVD to television. The quality is extraordinary, HD television sets accept both HD and SD, and, for the first time in history, HD enables captioning in up to eight different languages with more to come.

With the increasing adoption of HD begins the metamorphosis of captioning into subtitling. Until HD, captioning was identified by the turn-on/turn-off factor and the black boxes behind the text, which always used the same font. Meanwhile, subtitling could not be turned off, did not use the black boxes, and featured generally attractive text with attributes such as color and outline.

With the advent of HD and modern techniques for the web, captions are beginning to include attributes that can be changed by users, who can select the font, style, color, and size of their choice. The black boxes can be removed or retained. The time in history has arrived when captioning and subtitling are beginning to blend into one. Programs will become available in two, five, 20, or 40 languages, most particularly with on-demand on the web, and revenues for even small-content producers will go global.

The Way We Were
In 1980, the first set-top closed-caption decoder box with its own antenna was made available for $200. Users could flip a switch to see subtitles (which were called captions to differentiate their new on/off capability from the burn-in variety), which could be annoying to those who weren’t hearing-impaired. About 400,000 set-top boxes were sold over 25 years, but there are 24 million people in North America who are deaf or hard of hearing. The number of set-top boxes sold in that 25-year time frame was not impressive compared to the number of people who needed the subtitle feature.

In 1990, the Decoder Circuitry Act mandated that all televisions sold in the U.S. with screens 13" or larger must contain a built-in caption-decoder chip. That law signaled the death knell of the set-top box manufacturers. Captioning became available on 10 million new televisions per year, and the FCC set rules governing captioning’s attributes and technical aspects. The advent of the decoder chip enabled all 24 million hearing-impaired people to be assimilated into our lives—to feel they were part of, not apart from, society.

Another effect of the Decoder Circuitry Act was the ability to control captioning with a remote control, enabling television viewing in public buildings and sports bars with muted sound. This also enabled a user to follow the news with the TV on mute while stuck on the phone with a dull conversationalist.

Today, captioning is mandatory for all broadcast media with a few exceptions, such as new companies, companies with less than $3 million in revenue, and internet channels. There are certain character and font limitations, such as no more than 32 characters per line, equidistant lettering in which an "I" must be as wide as a "W," and a number of other rules to ensure that the captioning produced is compatible with all chips and players. The cost of captioning is somewhat heavy on the budget, as companies are often charged about $600 per hour depending on the vendor and the care devoted to breakdown and aesthetics. Then, the network or content manager either accepts responsibility for the encoding or outsources the task.

But in the near future, the cost of captioning, which has been a valuable investment in a needy segment of our society, could become an investment to attract both the viewing public and new sources of global revenue for many of the world’s media-content distributors, from cable to the web.

Compatibilities
I suppose it is a ridiculous notion that the world should share a commonality, such as being able to watch the same television set or use the same caption-decoder chip. The Americas, even with the new digital changeover, will still use the NTSC standard (as digital, not analog), while most of Europe still uses the PAL standard, and the French—always striving to be different—use SECAM. So the captioning system used in the Americas does not work on European or Asian televisions, and the teletext system of Europe does not work in the Americas.