Lawsuit against CNN brings captions into the spotlight

A disabilities rights group sued CNN this week for not providing closed captions for its online videos. The lawsuit, which was filed against CNN parent Time Warner (s TWX) in Alameda County Superior Court on Wednesday, puts the issue of captioning back into the spotlight, and a defeat for CNN could have significant implications for every online video provider in California.

The Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD) as well as four individual plaintiffs allege that CNN violates California’s Civil Rights Act and the state’s Disabled Persons Act by serving videos without closed captions online. The plaintiffs are seeking class action status on behalf of all deaf and hard of hearing persons in California, and want to get the court to issue an injunction against Time Warner as well as force the company to pay statutory damages. GLAD estimates that there are some 100,000 deaf people in California.

The advocates say they contacted Time Warner about the issue before filing the lawsuit, but the media company refused to change its course and add captions to They point to this refusal as proof for Time Warner’s alleged discriminatory practices. “Through this refusal, (Time Warner) denies people who are deaf or hard of hearing access to much of the most important content it offers through,” the complaint reads. “We have not been served and decline to comment further at this time,” we were told by a CNN spokesperson.

The issue at the heart of this lawsuit is not new, as disabilities rights advocates have long pressed for captioning online videos. Requirements to do so were part of the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which passed Congress with bipartisan support in September and then was signed into law by President Obama in October. However, the online video industry largely dodged a bullet with that law, as online-only programming is exempt from these requirements. Broadcasters will eventually have to caption online videos that previously aired on TV, but the law includes a generous transition period.

The lawsuit filed this week takes a different approach by relying on much broader laws, which could have far wider implications. For example, it defines CNN’s website as a “public place,” which would have to be equally accessible to persons with disabilities under the state’s Disabled Persons Act. One could of course make the same argument for any other website publicly accessible online. This could mean that any site serving up video in California could face similar legal challenges if the lawsuit was successful at establishing a legal precedent.

Regardless of the outcome, the lawsuit could cause online video companies to take another look at closed captioning options. Companies like PLYmedia, which offer closed captioning solutions, have long argued that the cost of adding captions is far outweighed by the additional benefits.

Captions add SEO juice because they make it possible to discover video content through search engines, for instance. They also make it easier to consume online video in offices or other settings where following the audio feed isn’t an option even for people that aren’t hearing disabled. Internal research showed that videos with captions are viewed 38 percent longer than videos without, according to a Plymedia spokesperson.

A number of companies have already started to add closed captions to their online video catalog. Netflix (s NFLX) Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt said in February that 30 percent of content watched by viewers already had subtitles, and the goal is to bring that number up to 80 percent by the end of the year. Hulu also provides captions for part of its catalog. YouTube (s GOOG) enables publishers to add captions to their videos, and additionally launched automatic captions for all its videos in early 2010. Most recently, YouTube debuted captioning for live video content.