United States Regulations on Closed Captions

Updated July 24, 2023


If you produce or distribute online video in the United States, it may be subject to regulations regarding accessibility for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. There are several regulations that mandate closed captions for certain video content. Their application to Web video is somewhat limited; it mainly concerns content from governments or organizations receiving public funding, and content that has previously been shown on television.

There are three major pieces of legislation that require closed captioning to be provided to make online video accessible:

  • The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and the rulings made in implementation thereof by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  • The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and case law that has extended it to online video content
  • Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA)

The CVAA is a U.S. federal law that was enacted in 2010. The law aims to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to modern communications and video programming technologies. It addresses accessibility across various forms of communication and media, including telecommunications, advanced communications services, and video programming.

The CVAA requires closed captions to be available for all online video content that previously aired on U.S. television. It does not apply to video content that has never been shown on television.

The CVAA applies to entities responsible for the distribution or exhibition of video programming. This includes broadcasters, cable operators, satellite television providers, and certain online platforms that distribute video programming.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rulings

The FCC is an independent agency of the United States government whose mission is to ensure that the American public has access to reliable, affordable and high-quality communications services. It is responsible for enforcing the CVAA’s captioning requirements. In that capacity, it has defined the CVAA’s captioning criteria in detail through a number of rulings.

FCC rulings have provided more clarity regarding the requirements for closed captions. The FCC rulings apply to television programs, but must also be followed if a television program is subsequently published online. In addition, the FCC recommends adopting them for other online video content, but this isn’t a legal requirement.

Note that the CVAA and FCC rulings don’t apply to live streaming content as such. Live television broadcasts that are published online are subject to a 12-hour grace period (or 8 hours for near-live programs) during which captions can be added.

FCC Rulings regarding closed caption quality

In 2014, the FCC issued a ruling containing the quality standards that captions,  required under the CVAA, should meet. These include accuracy, timing, completeness and placement of closed captions:

  • Accuracy: captions must accurately reflect the spoken content and convey the meaning of the dialogue, sound effects, and music. They should include proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Captioning should also identify the speakers and indicate when there are multiple speakers or changes in speakers.
  • Synchronicity: captions should be synchronized with the corresponding spoken words and appear at the same time as the dialogue or sounds occur. They should not lag behind or precede the associated audio.
  • Completeness: captions should be complete and include all significant dialogue, lyrics, and sounds that are essential to understanding the program. Captions should not omit or paraphrase crucial information.
  • Placement: captions should be placed in a clear and readable manner on the screen, ensuring that they do not obscure relevant visual content or on-screen text. They should have sufficient contrast with the background to facilitate easy reading.

Although the CVAA and FCC rulings are only mandatory for content that was previously shown on television (in whole or in part), these standards are an important resource for determining the criteria that captions must meet for accessibility purposes in general.

FCC Rulings regarding video playback devices

The FCC also established a number of rules that video playback devices must follow in cases where closed captions are mandatory. These requirements ensure that video playback devices are equipped with the necessary features and capabilities to display closed captions effectively and that users have control over their captioning experience.

  • User Controls: the equipment must provide user controls to enable viewers to activate and deactivate closed captions as desired. These controls should be easily accessible and clearly labeled to allow users to turn captions on or off, adjust the captioning style, and access other caption-related settings.
  • Caption Rendering: the display of closed captions should be accurate, synchronous with the corresponding audio, and properly formatted. Captions should not be truncated, overlap with other text or visuals, or be cut off due to improper display settings.
  • Caption Default Settings: when the video playback device is initially turned on or reset, closed captions should be set to the “off” state by default. This allows viewers to choose whether they want to enable captions based on their preferences and needs.
  • Caption Memory: video playback devices should retain the user’s preferred closed caption settings when the device is turned off and back on again. This prevents the need for users to repeatedly adjust caption settings every time they use the device.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is a landmark civil rights law enacted in the United States in 1990. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and promotes their equal access and participation in various areas of public life.

The ADA initially required physical access to buildings for ‘public entities‘ (e.g. local governments) and places of public accommodations‘, which are public or private businesses used by the public at large. In addition, it also demands that ‘auxiliary aids‘ be made available to anyone with a disability. The latter has been interpreted by case law to mean that the captioning of online video content falls within the scope of the ADA. Since a national streaming provider like Netflix is considered to be a place of public accommodation by case law, it should therefore provide closed captions as part of their online video content.

Although the ADA does not explicitly mention best practices for closed captioning, a growing body of organizations and government entities have adopted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA as the standard required to comply with the ADA. Therefore, closed captions should be provided for live streams that fall under the scope of the ADA.

Rehabilitation Act, Sections 504 and 508

The Rehabilitation Act, enacted in 1973, is a federal anti-discrimination law that affects federal agencies and federally funded programs regarding their treatment of persons with disabilities. Two amendments, Sections 504 and 508, ensure that this law also applies to online video content. In addition, many U.S. states passed so-called ‘mini 508 laws’ that extend this to (certain) federally funded organizations.

Section 508 requires compliance of online video with WCAG 2.0 Level AA. This not only means that pre-recorded video must have captions and audio description, but also that live streams must be captioned.