Closed-Captions on the Web: An Unfinished Battle

By Josh Bejamin, AAPD Power Grid Blog, June 05, 2012

There are nearly 150,000 television shows on air in the United States.

Thanks to the Decoder Circuitry Act, which was passed in 1990, and Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed that same year, closed captions are available on our home television sets. This technology means that deaf and hard of hearing Americans have access to 150,000 TV programs every day.

But times are changing.

Compare 150,000 television shows to 37 billion online videos. It takes just one month for YouTube to upload more video content than has been aired on the three major TV networks in over 60 years – and the vast majority of those videos are not closed-captioned.

Not only is it apparent that our computers are replacing our television sets, it is increasingly evident that television captions are not nearly as vital as captions on the internet.


First and foremost, captions make the web accessible. The internet is an indispensable tool of the 21st century – a tool of education, occupation, communication, and entertainment. It is near impossible to function in today’s society without at least occasional access to a wireless or broadband connection .With 84.5% of internet-users watching online videos each month, websites like YouTube, CNN, and Hulu have solidified their positions as staples of the internet. Without captioning, this content is completely inaccessible to millions of people.

Providing closed captions not only ensures that content is accessible; it makes the internet better for all users by optimizing search engines like Google or Bing. Unlike articles, which are easily searchable because they consist of words on a page, videos can be difficult to comb through. Search results for videos are based solely on the titles and tags their creators give them, which are sometimes irrelevant to the video, and the short descriptions that follow. If all online videos had closed-captions, we would be able to search the dialogue, music, and other sounds that appear within them, making the internet a more useful tool than it already is.

So how can we caption all online video content? What steps have webpages already taken to do so? What steps has the government taken? And what supplementary measures must be adopted to achieve complete online accessibility?

Thanks to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), signed by President Obama in October of that year, the entertainment industry has been steadily embedding closed-captions into their streaming videos. The law requires broadcasters, by September 2013, to caption all television programs they redistribute on the web. Not surprisingly, TV shows and movies on Hulu, Netflix, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox are almost all captioned.

But in the news media sector of the web, almost no videos are captioned. One of the major shortcomings of the CVAA is that it does not cover internet-only video content. The homepages of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox’s news websites each feature uncaptioned video news reports, and web-based local news giant provides no captioning requirements for its affiliates. Not only does the CVAA neglect internet-specific videos, it neglects user-generated content on sites like YouTube, which accounts for 46% of all videos on the web.

Notably, Youtube has taken several strides toward universal closed-captions. In 2008 it unveiled to users the option to embed closed captions into their own videos. The following year, it created a system which uses Google’s speech recognition technology to automatically transcribe audio into closed captions.

Still in beta, the technology is rarely accurate.

And even with the option to add captions to your own videos, users, for the most part, choose not to.

One of the most popular searches on YouTube, “funny video”, returns 13,300,000 results. If filtered to closed-captioned videos, the search yields a mere 138,000 results. Likewise, searching “Michael Jackson” returns 3,170,000 videos, and only 3,160 of those videos have captions.

So what more can be done?

In the spirit of video sharing, YouTube could unveil a system for users to add captions to videos that are not their own. Or even simpler, online news outlets like ABC could voluntarily add captions. World News Tonight did it in 1972, without prompt from the government.

While civil rights organizations including AAPD and our coalition allies worked hard to pass the CVAA and consider it a step forward for fully accessible online programming, experience shows that we need more. The need for equal access to on line video content will only grow more urgent as this content area grows.

Perhaps what makes this issue most pertinent to the national discourse is the fact that complete online accessibility is essential to an economy that depends on the internet and workers who rely on its content. As we work to advance accessible technology through legislation, we also must convince individual YouTube users and online video outlets to accept the global necessity of closed-captions on the internet.

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