What is Closed Captioning?

Updated August 2015

FCC Closed Captioning Guidelines

Closed captioning was developed in the 1970s and 1980s specifically to help those with hearing issues access television. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for mandating what T.V. programs need closed captioning. Increasingly, online content providers/distributors such as iTunes and Netflix require closed captioning files for accepted media. Closed captioning typically comes in two main styles: pop-on and timed roll-up (TRU).

FCC guidelines state:
Captioning should reflect as much of the audio as possible. Captioning should feature proper spelling and punctuation.
Captioning should not block important information on the screen. Captioning should run for the entire length of the program.

Choosing a Closed Captioning Company

There are a lot of choices out there, and each choice comes with a different price; some are very low, others are very high. Where to begin? One thing to keep in mind is that quality does not necessarily follow price. One company may charge 25% less than another and yet provide the same quality. Often it will come down to the experience of the editors and the time available for the project.

Another idea to keep in mind is that there is no FCC certification for captioning services. If you need FCC-compliant captions, you'll want to find a company that has been in the business for some time and has a proven track record for delivering quality captioning files.

The Described and Captioned Media Program provides some additional guidelines for captioning vendors and service providers.

Closed Captioning vs. Subtitling

Captioning is a very special kind of subtitling. It must meet certain technical specs. For example, no caption can exceed 32 characters in length. And for FCC requirements, captioning must adhere to certain quality guidelines. Subtitling files aren't necessarily held to those restrictions.

Captioning has historically been linked to issues around diminished hearing ability. Although captioning was originally designed for such a population, it's often used in settings where hearing the audio from the TV would be a nuisance (say, a bar or restaurant). Captioning provides a way for hearing and non-hearing individuals to follow along with the news or game no matter the setting.

In reality, a closed captioning file is not much more than a text file with timing. But just like document files can come in a variety of formats, captioning files can too. If you're having your captioning project encoded by a company at Subsandcaps, you may never see these files. However, if you prefer to handle your files on your own or if you'll need to upload them separately to a place like iTunes, the format will be important.

Two of the most popular formats you would expect to see with closed captioning: