Closed Captioning Laws & Guidelines, Explained

For many people nowadays, it’s hard to imagine watching without subtitles. From letting you watch your favorite show on an airplane or helping you understand a foreign film, subtitles and captions allow you to enjoy video content you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

But captions extend past convenience — captions allow those with a hearing disability to consume TV shows, films, news and more. That’s why, as a video content creator, it’s important to familiarize yourself with closed captioning laws

This article will discuss closed captioning laws, when they apply, and the consequences of not following them. We’ll also discuss the best way to comply with closed captioning standards. Keep scrolling for more! 

What is Closed Captioning?

Closed captioning (CC) is the text that accompanies a TV show, movie, or other video clip. It’s used to depict any relevant audio in the clip, such as spoken dialogue and sound effects like floors creaking or footsteps approaching.

Captions exist primarily to help viewers understand the story in the absence of sound. They are required by law to increase accessibility for those with hearing disabilities.  Furthermore, closed captioning can also help the video appeal to a wider variety of people. For instance, it allows viewers to watch foreign films with closed captions in their native language. 

Sometimes, people also prefer captions to ensure they don’t miss any important words in the dialogue. This is useful for a video where the speaker talks fast or has a thick accent that’s difficult to comprehend.

Closed Captioning vs Open Captioning vs Subtitles

Before we go any further, it’s important to distinguish closed captioning from open captioning and subtitles. Because while they all serve the same purpose, they have subtle differences.

Simply put, closed captioning is optional — the viewer can turn it on or off. On the other hand, open captions are embedded into the video; in other words, it’s part of the clip itself and will thus always appear when viewed.

So then what about subtitles? The difference is in the details. Closed captions assume that you’re watching the video on mute; thus, it also includes sound cues like footsteps or wind whooshing. On the other hand, subtitles exist primarily to support the dialogue – they assume the viewer is watching with the sound on.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

It would be impossible to discuss closed captioning without touching on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Signed into law in 1990, it requires government agencies, public services, and private businesses to ensure equal opportunity for people with disabilities, including those with hearing impairments.

Why is this relevant? The ADA captioning guidelines exist to guarantee that video content is easily accessible to those hard of hearing or who have lost their hearing entirely. Let’s look at closed captioning laws next, and then we’ll discuss guidelines. 

When is Closed Captioning Required by Law?

Closed captioning is strictly mandated by law, and regulations enforce when and how closed captioning should be done and by whom. So what happens if you don’t follow closed captioning laws? Non-compliance may lead to heavy fines or lawsuits.

Generally, there are four closed captioning laws you need to comply with.

  1. We discussed the first in an earlier section – the Americans with Disabilities Act. Specifically, you must fulfill the organization’s Title II and III rules to ensure ADA compliance. Closed captioning, as per these two guidelines, applies to both private and public entities that show any “public-facing” video content, both offline and online.

For example, the ADA has strict closed captioning requirements for streaming video that Netflix ignored before 2010. This led the ADA to sue them.

  1. The second law you need to consider is the Rehabilitation Act, which is primarily an anti-discrimination regulation. Specifically, you must comply with Section 504 and 508 of the said act.

Section 504 applies primarily to Federal programs and agencies, including Executive agencies and the United States Postal Service. Its primary requirement is to provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities, including putting closed captioning on video content.

Section 508 applies mostly to the Federal Government. It focuses on giving anyone with disabilities equal access by using information technology. As such, applying WCAG guidelines can help you comply with this regulation.

  1. The third law you need to examine is the FCC Closed Captioning Regulations. It requires all cable operators, satellite distributors, and other video programming distributors to include closed captioning in all TV programs.
  1. The last closed captioning law to consider is the 21st Century Communications and Videos Accessibility Act or CVAA.

The CVAA governs closed captioning on one specific type of content – online videos previously aired on broadcast television. If this is the case, you must ensure that the online version has closed captioning that “matches the quality as when such programs were shown on TV.”

The CVAA has the same standards as FCC closed captioning rules. If your video content satisfies that, then it should pass the CVAA.

What Are The Closed Captioning Guidelines?

Guidelines exist to ensure that video content creators correctly apply closed captioning. Accessibility and adherence to ADA closed captioning requirements are some of the metrics covered by these rules.

You can choose from three closed captioning standards — DCMP, WCAG, and the FCC.


DCMP stands for Described and Captioned Media Program. This non-profit organization focuses on video content accessibility for the hearing and the visually impaired. 

Its closed captioning best practices are found in a guide called the DCMP Captioning Key. Of important note are the characteristics that every good caption should use, which include the following:

  • The first is clarity. The closed captioning must include all audio depicted in the video, from dialog to sound effects. This ensures that a deaf viewer can get all the sound cues as a normal viewer.
  • The second is accuracy. The captioning must be correct and error-free. There shouldn’t be any misspellings, especially if it leads to a different meaning.
  • The third is equality. The meaning and intention of the sound should be completely preserved as is, without any different interpretation. The exact words a regular viewer hears should be the same thing that appears in the closed captioning.
  • The fourth is readability. The closed captioning must be legible and not “blend” into the video content. Furthermore, captions should appear long enough to be read and be in sync with the audio.
  • The last is consistency. The way the closed captioning is presented should be uniform throughout the video.


WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. It’s a set of accessibility standards published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international standard organization that governs the Internet. As such, WCAG focuses more on online content.

The WCAG lays out 12 best practices, grouped into four main principles.

  • The first is that content must be perceivable. This means that any content should be available in multiple formats, depending on which one the viewer is comfortable with.

For example, photos should have text alternatives for those who can’t view images. Other practices under this category include using assistive technologies, providing closed captions, and allowing users to see and hear content.

  • The second principle is that content must be operable. Giving users enough time to read and process content is critical for the hearing impaired. It also governs the use of alternative input other than a keyboard. Finally, the content must not cause any physical reaction (like seizures) among users.
  • Third is that the content should be understandable. Readability and legibility are crucial here. For instance, closed captions should be error-free and predictable to the user.
  • Finally, content should be robust. This simply means that the content should be “future-ready” and able to support any new accessibility tools introduced.


FCC stands for the Federal Communications Commission, a US government agency regulating the country’s radio, TV, and cable communications. Specifically, FCC closed captioning rules govern any film or show broadcast on US TV.

Compared to other standards, FCC rules have separate rules for pre-recorded and live or near-live shows. That’s because it’s harder to caption live programming as it’s happening.

The FCC guideline was a result of the organization getting over 1,600 complaints about TV captions that were inaccurate and incomprehensible. Thus, the guidelines were meant to improve the quality of closed captioning for all US TV shows and films.

  • First, it must be accurate. Every piece of audio – from dialogue to sound effects – must be conveyed with closed captioning. No exceptions can be made.
  • Second, the captioning must be synchronous. The words must align perfectly with the person speaking or the source of the sound in the video. At the same time, the duration of the caption must be long enough for readers to digest it properly.
  • Third, the caption must be complete. Every part of the show or program must include closed captioning.
  • Lastly, it must be properly placed. Part of a caption’s readability is ensuring that it doesn’t overlap or “blend” into the video. Nor must it obstruct key elements on the screen (such as an actor’s face).

How to Adhere to Closed Captioning Standards

At Sonix, we believe that you don’t need laws to tell you to put closed captioning into your videos. Closed captioning is always a good idea, even if it’s not required, because it makes your video content much more accessible.

Currently, roughly 20% of the world’s population (or 1.5 billion people) have a hearing disability, according to the World Health Organization. That’s a huge market you’re potentially missing out on if you don’t caption your videos. But how do you ensure your videos adhere to closed captioning standards?

Look at the different closed captioning standards we’ve covered in this article. You’ll find that they all boil down to three factors – accuracy, timing, and completeness.

The fastest and easiest way to tackle all three is through automated transcription. Transcription is simply the process of turning speech into written text. Traditionally, this process was done by a transcriptionist, who watched through a video and wrote down every word they heard. While hiring a human transcriptionist was effective, it was extremely  time-consuming and expensive.

A better alternative is to use automatic transcription software like Sonix to generate accurate closed captions in minutes. Sonix uses artificial intelligence (AI) to produce one of the industry’s most accurate transcriptions — all independently reviewed by experts to be as good as a human transcriber. And because it’s automated, it’s very fast and affordable.

But we go beyond just transcription. Sonix also offers audio translation, which converts your transcript into over 39 languages. Our software also supports word-by-word timestamps, speaker labeling, and automated diarization. 
These tools make Sonix the best option for creating closed-captioned videos easier, faster, and cheaper. Ready to get started with Sonix? Try our transcription software with a free trial today! 

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