TV Regulations

According to TV caption regulations set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), almost everything on TV must be captioned, including Spanish and English programming, scheduled, and on-demand programming. “On TV” applies to anything a viewer receives over the air (antenna) or from a cable, satellite, or fiber subscription.  For programming delivered via IP (Apple TV, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, etc.), see IP Programming Regulations.  The most common exceptions to the TV captioning rules are:

  • Late Night Programming: Programming airing between 2:00 a.m and 6:00 a.m. is not required to be captioned.
  • New Networks: New networks are exempt from captioning requirements for four years.  Note that this does not apply to a network that has changed names, but only to entirely new networks.
  • Low Revenue Networks: Channels are not required to spend more than 2% of their gross revenue, as reported to the FCC for that channel the previous year.  In addition, channels reporting revenue of less than $3 million are not required to caption, though they are required to pass through captioning.
  • Short Form Programming and TV Advertisements: Interstitial material, promotional announcements, and public service announcements that are ten minutes or less in duration are not required to be captioned.

Read more about exemptions to the FCC’s Captioning Rules.

Caption Quality:

On February 24, 2014, the FCC released a Report and Order outlining a series of best practices to be followed by programmers and caption vendors, among others, effective March 16, 2015. VITAC helped to draft the captioning vendor best practices and will certify to our customers that we are in compliance. We’ve summarized programmer and captioning vendor best practices below – please see the FCC’s website for complete details.

Video Programmers:

  • Insist on performance requirements in agreements that adhere to best practices for caption vendors and ensure vendor’s captioners are properly trained.
  • Develop a means to verify performance requirements are met.
  • Provide relevant prep materials, including names of guests, show rundowns, song lyrics, etc.
  • Ensure that prerecorded shows are captioned by offline captioners, with offline workflow, with some exceptions.
  • Check offline captions periodically for accuracy of text and timing before air, and verify the presence of real-time captions during the live broadcast.
  • Post caption vendor contact information where it can be easily spotted, i.e. a master control room.
  • Record caption issues and communicate them to the caption vendor. Develop protocol for troubleshooting captioning issues.

Captioning Vendors/Captioners:

  • Create metrics to assess accuracy, synchronicity, completeness, and on-screen placement of realtime captions.
  • Screen, train, and periodically evaluate all captioners.
  • Provide a reliable technical infrastructure to ensure technical and other support to video programmers and captioners at all times.
  • Verify captioners are prepared and in position prior to a scheduled assignment.
  • Create technical and operational systems to ensure live caption delivery is as fast and reliable as possible.
  • Review discrepancy reports, respond to video programmer and viewer concerns in a timely manner, and make adjustments as necessary.
  • Monitor captions and alert video programmers immediately if a technical issue needs to be addressed on their end.
  • Keep abreast of developments in any aspect of the closed captioning process and their implications.
  • Ensure offline captions are verbatim, error-free, synchronized with the audio, and include speaker identifications and sound effects.


  • Accuracy: Captioning shall match the spoken words (or song lyrics when provided on the audio track) in their original language (English or Spanish), without paraphrasing, except to resolve any time constraints.
  • Synchronicity: Captioning shall coincide with the corresponding spoken words and sounds to the greatest extent possible.
  • Completeness: Captioning shall run from the beginning to the end of the program, to the fullest extent possible.
  • Placement: Captioning shall not block on-screen graphics.

Read more about the rules.

Electronic Newsroom Technique (ENT)

Captioning for most live TV programming is created by specially trained captioners who listen to a program and “write” or speak what they hear.  The captioners’ keystrokes and spoken words are translated by their computer into captions.  The captions are transmitted to the broadcaster via modem or IP, and are incorporated into the TV signal.   Realtime captioning is the most accurate way to caption live TV and must be used by the major national broadcast television networks and their affiliates in the top 25 markets as defined by Nielsen.

Stations outside the top 25 markets may not be able to afford realtime captioning.  As such, they are permitted to use “Electronic Newsroom Technique,” whereby the scripted information read by anchors and reporters is transmitted as captions to the viewer.

As part of the FCC’s caption quality Report and Order, strict rules were put in place to ensure ENT captioning was as complete as possible. These rules include the scripting of in-studio produced programming and weather interstitials. Stations must also appoint an “ENT coordinator” responsible for ensuring compliance with the new rules.

Spanish Captions

The Federal Communications Commission mandates that most programming broadcast in English and Spanish be captioned. The commission’s 2014 update on captioning rules required that all new bilingual English and Spanish-language programming (and 75 percent of older, pre-1998 bilingual English and Spanish-language shows) be captioned, as well as all “on demand” content.

Included in this is all the Spanish-language content broadcast on your television’s secondary audio programming (SAP) channel. The FCC considers Spanish through SAP channels to be Spanish-language programming and, therefore, subject to the same rules as traditional Spanish-language shows. Even if a program’s primary audio is English with only its secondary audio in Spanish, broadcasters still are required to provide captions for both.

Video Description (aka Audio Description)

The FCC requires local affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC located in the top 60 markets and the top 5 non-broadcast networks to provide 50 hours per quarter (4 hours per week) of described primetime or children’s programming.

The top five nonbroadcast networks currently are Disney Channel, History, TBS, TNT, and USA.

In addition to these networks, many PBS stations provide video description on their programming voluntarily.

Beginning July 1, 2018, the affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC in the top 50 markets and the new top 5 non-broadcast networks will be required to provide an increased 87.5 hours per quarter.

The top five non-broadcast networks according to Nielsen ratings after exemptions were granted will be USA, HGTV, TBS, Discovery, and History when this new rule goes into effect.