Web TV needs to have captions starting next month, the FCC rules

TV networks and web video sites will have to start providing closed captions for any TV content available online by the end of September, the FCC ruled a few days ago (PDF of the ruling). The ruling reaffirmed the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which was signed into law by President Obama in October of 2010, as well as an FCC ruling from earlier this year. However, the industry got a bit of a break, with the FCC ruling that they won’t have to provide customizable captions until early 2014.

Captions for web video have been a bit of a hot button issue for some time: Disability advocates have been arguing that web video providers aren’t doing enough to make their clips accessible to disabled viewers, and have actually sued both CNN and Netflix (s NFLX) over missing captions.

They also successfully pushed for the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which largely focuses on the way traditional TV networks and their online distribution partners present their fare on the internet. The law itself didn’t actually contain any firm deadlines for TV networks to adopt online captioning, but instead authorized the FCC to do so. The Commission set a September 30 deadline earlier this year, but the Digital Media Association, whose members include Amazon (s AMZN), Apple (s AAPL) and YouTube (s GOOG), argued that the industry needed more time.

The FCC didn’t agree, and is sticking with the September 30 deadline – with one big exception: Distributors of TV content will have to render closed captions, but they won’t have to provide the raw captioning data to the web video player to allow for further customization. What does that mean? The original FCC rule included a mandate that would have allowed consumers to change the font size and color of captions to improve readability. These requirements now have been postponed for another 16 months. Starting September 30, deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers will have a right to access to basic captions, without these kinds of bells and whistles.

Of course, many sites already offer closed captioning for at least a part of their web video inventory, and that likely won’t change at the end of next month. The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act only covers programming that’s also shown on TV, and exempts any online-only programming. Even TV news clips that have been edited for the web don’t fall under the requirement – but that likely won’t stop disability advocates from going after providers of these kinds of video.