Closed Captioning Best Practices & Subtitle Guidelines

By: Danielle Chazen

Closed captions and subtitles are being used by many individuals in a variety of use cases outside of those they were initially designed for. Technology and artificial intelligence have greatly improved their accuracy, as well as their ability to be generated live at rapid speed.

As the technology and use cases evolve and expand, more questions continue to arise on closed captioning and subtitle guidelines. Here are some answers to FAQs we’ve been receiving frequently from professionals and students as of late.

What is closed captioning?

Closed captioning, often abbreviated as CC, and subtitling are both processes of providing text on a TV, video, or other visual display to provide additional or interpretive information. They serve as transcription for the audio of a broadcast or event and can either be verbatim or edited. They often include descriptions of non-speech elements, such as a sound which is important for context. ‘Closed’ indicates that the captions can be turned on and off by the viewer.

What are the benefits of using captions if I don’t have a disability?

Closed captions were initially created for deaf and hard of hearing individuals to assist them with comprehension. They are critical for these individuals in order for them to participate live and effectively alongside their peers and counterparts.

Now, these tools have evolved to become helpful for those learning to read or learning to speak a non-native language. They are also used by viewers when they’re in environments where the audio is difficult to hear or is intentionally muted.

Captions can provide all viewers with an additional visual cue regardless of disability. Viewers can benefit as captions are known to increase engagement and information retention of video. They’re being used by students learning live and online, by enterprises holding meetings via Zoom, for virtual events, for news broadcasts and for videos produced by media companies.

What makes “good” captions? What are the standards for captioning?

Captioning can be held to different standards set by a few organizations. The FCC notes that good captions are those which accurately reflect the audio messaging contained within the subject at hand, including matching the conversations, music and additional sounds. They should also be able to correctly identify the speakers.

Effective captions are delivered synchronously with the conversation they’re attached to and at a speed that can be consumed by viewers. They should be complete for the entire program. When done properly, captions shouldn’t block any important on-screen information.

The Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) is funded by the Department of Education and works to educate students with sensory disabilities, their parents and teachers on needs of K-12 students, as well as adult students learning in universities and online. Their standards and captioning guidelines can be referenced here.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) also outlines its standards to make audio and video media more accessible here. Standards have been set with regard to live captions and the interactive transcripts produced from these captions, as well as for those placed on pre-recorded materials.
Man working on a laptop

When is closed captioning a must?

There are some legal requirements to keep in mind, such as meeting captioning guidelines outlined to ensure all students, viewers and participants are given equal opportunities to consume content.

Universities must meet ADA requirements which call for 99% accuracy of all captions provided to students. Without meeting the 99% accuracy threshold, universities can face lawsuits and materials are deemed inaccessible. Many additional guidelines exist which cover news and media, including those outlined below:

  • The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 gave the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) power to enact rules on the implementation of Closed Captioning.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was also passed in 1990 to ensure equal opportunity for persons with disabilities. Title III of the ADA requires that public facilities, including hospitals, bars, shopping centers and museums, provide accessible materials. 
  • The Telecommunications Act of 1996 expanded on the Decoder Circuity Act, and all TV programming in the US became required to provide closed captions for Spanish-language video programming as of January 2010.
  • In July 2010, H.R. 3101, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, was passed by the US House of Representatives and S. 3304 was passed by the US Senate in August 2010 and then signed by former President Barack Obama. The Act extended closed captioning rules and required broadcasters to provide captioning for television programs redistributed online.
  • In February 2014, the FCC approved the implementation of quality standards for closed captioning, which address accuracy, timing, completeness and placement. 

It’s clear that captioning and subtitling have many additional benefits aside from increasing accessibility for those with disabilities. Conferences, webinars, video calls via Zoom, lectures and additional videos are well suited to provide captions to their viewers and participants.

Captions help to increase engagement and also improve the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) of a business’s videos since they make the videos more searchable. Captioned videos will naturally rank higher on Google, Yahoo and Bing. Conference and webinar organizers are also utilizing captions to serve as a visual aid so viewers can fully understand all speakers, especially when quick cadences and accents come into play. They also help commuters and others who can’t play audio out loud to be able to consume content on-the-go and understand what’s occurring seamlessly.

Captions can also be used to create transcripts which serve as written records and great notes in the workplace, schools and during events. Verbit provides 99% accurate captions and transcripts by using a mix of automatic-speech-recognition (ASR) technology and human transcribers who then fact check the work. This dual process allows for effective speaker identification, recognition of difficult terminology and note taking features which primes students, employees and media viewers for effective video consumption.

Closed captioning best practices therefore include placing them in as many environments as possible to offer viewers which choice and ensuring you’re working with a provider you can rely on for accuracy. When incorrect captions are provided to viewers, they can be highly distracting and misleading and do more harm than good. A closed captioning style guide will be different for universities, businesses and media, so it’s recommended to enlist a trusted partner who has specialization and expertise in different industry needs.

If you’re interested in learning more about Verbit’s captions which meet the closed captioning standards and closed captioning guidelines necessary to avoid legal issues, contact us.