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Closed Captioning on Television

Benefits of Closed Captioning

Closed captioning allows persons with hearing disabilities to have access to television programming by displaying the audio portion of a television program as text on the television screen. Closed captioning provides a critical link to news, entertainment and information for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. For individuals whose native language is not English, English language captions improve comprehension and fluency. Captions also help improve literacy skills. You can turn on closed captions through your remote control or on-screen menu. (The FCC does not regulate captioning of home videos, DVDs or video games.)

FCC Regulatory Background on Closed Captioning

Beginning in July 1993, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required all analog television receivers with screens 13 inches or larger sold or manufactured in the United States to contain built-in decoder circuitry to display closed captioning. As of July 1, 2002, the FCC also required that digital television (DTV) receivers include closed captioning display capability.

In 1996, Congress required video programming distributors (VPDs) (cable operators, broadcasters, satellite distributors and other multi-channel video programming distributors) to close caption their television programs. In 1997, the FCC set a transition schedule requiring distributors to provide an increasing amount of captioned programming, as summarized below.

New Rules Adopted

On February 20, 2014, the FCC set new, improved rules for TV closed captioning to ensure that viewers who are deaf and hard of hearing have full access to programming, resolving concerns on captioning quality and providing much-needed guidance to video programming distributors and programmers. (This guide will be updated when final dates new rules go into effect are announced.)

The new rules apply to all television programming with captions, addressing quality standards for accuracy, synchronicity (timing), program completeness, and placement of closed captions, including the requirement that captions be:

  • Accurate: Captions must match the spoken words in the dialogue and convey background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible.
  • Synchronous: Captions must coincide with their corresponding spoken words and sounds to the greatest extent possible and must be displayed on the screen at a speed that can be read by viewers.
  • Complete: Captions must run from the beginning to the end of the program to the fullest extent possible.
  • Properly placed: Captions should not block other important visual content on the screen, overlap one another or run off the edge of the video screen.

The rules distinguish between pre-recorded, live, and near-live programming and explains how the new standards apply to each type of programming, recognizing the greater hurdles involved with captioning live and near-live programming.

Best practices for video programmers and captioning vendors are included in the rules, which promise to improve captioning quality for viewers. For example, video programmers can provide high-quality program audio signals to promote accurate captioning transcriptions. They can also provide captioning vendors with advance access to show scripts, proper names and song lyrics, making it easier to caption live programs. Similarly, captioning vendors can ensure the proper screening, training and supervision of their captioners and take measures to ensure that their technical systems are functional, to prevent service interruptions.

The Commission also adopted measures to ensure that people who are deaf and hard of hearing will have greater access to news programming in their local communities. The measures include requiring broadcasters who are permitted under the Commission's rules to convert teleprompter script into captions to pre-script more of their news programming, including sports, weather, and most late-breaking stories. The pre-scripting requirement will result in captioning for some news programming that previously aired uncaptioned. In addition, the new rules require that crawls and other visual information be used to provide visual access to certain news segments that can't be pre-scripted.

Existing Rules for English Language Programming

Different closed captioning schedules apply to English language and Spanish language programming.

As of January 1, 2006, all "new" English language programming, defined as analog programming first published or exhibited on or after January 1, 1998, and digital programming first aired on or after July 1, 2002, must be captioned, with some exceptions.

As of January 1, 2008, 75 percent of "pre-rule" English language programming, defined as analog programming first shown before January 1, 1998, and digital programming first shown before July 1, 2002, must be captioned, with some exceptions.

Existing Rules for Spanish Language Programming

Because captioning is newer to Spanish language program providers, the FCC allowed them a longer time to provide captioned programming.

  • As of January 1, 2010, all "new" Spanish language must be captioned, with some exceptions.
  • As of January 1, 2012, 75 percent of "pre-rule" Spanish language programming must be captioned, with some exceptions.

Exempt Programming

Currently there are two categories of exemptions from the closed captioning rules.

Self-Implementing Exemptions

Self-implementing exemptions operate automatically and programmers do not need to petition the FCC. Examples include public service announcements that are shorter than 10 minutes and are not paid for with federal dollars, programming shown in the early morning hours (from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. local time), and programming that is primarily textual in nature. There is also an exemption for non-news programming with no repeat value that is locally produced by the video programming distributor (VPD). See a complete list of self-implementing exemptions.

Economically Burdensome Exemption from Closed Captioning Requirements

The FCC has established procedures for petitioning for an exemption from the closed captioning rules when compliance would be economically burdensome. Find out about the economically burdensome exemption.

A petition must include facts demonstrating that implementing closed captioning would be economically burdensome, which is defined as a significant difficulty or expense. There is no form to fill out. Electronic filing and faxes will not be accepted. A summary of the petition process is provided at the FCC website address above. While a petition is pending, the programming that is the subject of the petition is exempt from the closed captioning requirements.

Subtitles in Lieu of Captioning

The rules provide that open captioning or subtitles in the language of the target audience may be used in lieu of closed captioning.

What to Do if You Experience Closed Captioning Problems While Watching a Television Program

If you suddenly experience closed captioning problems while watching a program on television (e.g., the captions suddenly disappear or become garbled) you may contact your VPD (i.e., your cable or satellite TV service, or the TV station if you do not pay for cable, satellite or another subscription video service) to report the problem at the time that the problem occurs and see if you can get the problem fixed.

You can find your VPD's contact information in the following ways:

  • If you subscribe to a pay service (e.g., cable or satellite), the VPD's contact information should be in your bill
  • If you have over-the-air broadcast only TV, the contact information for the TV station should be in the phone directory
  • All VPDs with websites must post their contact information there
  • Search the FCC's VPD Registry

Finding Your VPD's Contact Information in the VPD Registry

VPDs must provide the FCC with contact information for the receipt and handling of immediate closed captioning concerns by consumers (e.g., the captions suddenly disappear or become garbled), and contact information for written closed captioning complaints. This information is in the FCC's VPD Registry. This link to the VPD Registry is also available on the FCC's closed captioning website.

You need to provide only two pieces of information to find your VPD: your zip code and the type of VPD or video provider that you use. In the VPD Registry, the "type of provider" is asking for how you receive your television programming. This could be "broadcast" for over-the-air users (for example, using "rabbit ears" or a rooftop antenna), "cable," "satellite," "local telephone company" or "other." If you do not know the type of program provider you use, select "All Types" and then click on "Submit." A list of the VPDs that provide service in your zip code will appear and you can select from that list. Once your VPD's name is shown, click on "view details" for that VPD's contact information.

If you do not see the VPD you were looking for, please confirm that you entered the correct zip code. If the VPD you are looking for is still not appearing, please contact the FCC's Consumer Call Center for assistance: 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); TTY: 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322).

Filing a Complaint

For captioning problems during non-emergency programming, you may file a written complaint with either the FCC or your VPD. If you file your complaint with the FCC, the FCC will forward the complaint to your VPD.

The FCC rules establish specific time limits for filing closed captioning complaints. Your written complaint must be filed within 60 days of the captioning problem. After receiving a complaint, either directly from you or from the FCC, the VPD will have 30 days to respond to the complaint. If you filed your complaint with your VPD and they do not respond within 30 days, or if a dispute remains, you can send your complaint to the FCC.

You can file your written complaint by using the online complaint form. You can also file your complaint with the FCC's Consumer Center by faxing 1-866-418-0232; or writing to:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

What to Include in Your Complaint

The best way to provide all the information the FCC needs to process your complaint is to thoroughly complete the online complaint form. When you open the online complaint form, you will be asked a series of questions that will take you to the particular section of the form you need to complete. If you do not use the online complaint form, your complaint should include the following information:

  • Your name, street, city, county, state and zip code and other contact information such as a videophone or TTY number or email address
  • The television channel number, call sign and network
  • The name of the subscription service, if you pay to receive television
  • The location of the TV station or subscription service
  • The date and time when you experienced the captioning problem
  • The name of the program or show with the captioning problem
  • A detailed description of the captioning problem, including specifics about the frequency and type of problem (e.g., garbling, captions cut off at certain times or on certain days, captions missing only with HD programming)
  • Any additional information that may assist in processing your complaint, such as a description of your television receiver set up, including the make and model of your television or computer, if you are using a computer to receive television signals, any recording devices attached to the receiver, and the kinds of cables used to attach the components

Resolution of Your Complaint May Be Delayed if the Information Above Is Incomplete

You can also provide the FCC with any additional information you think appropriate (e.g., video copies of the TV schedule showing the CC logo for the program you saw without closed captioning, written-out examples of garbled captions, video recordings you made of the captioning problem, etc.).

For More Information

For information about other communications issues, visit the FCC's Consumer website.

Print Out

Closed Captioning Guide (pdf)

Updated: June 4, 2014

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