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FCC's new closed captioning rules had long journey

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"Five wins and a very light power reese know" sounds more like gibberish than a weather forecast.

But that was the closed caption that hearing-impaired people got during a report from the WeatherNation channel last month. What the caption was supposed to say was, "high winds and a very light, powdery snow."

Closed captioning is designed to help the deaf and hearing-impaired enjoy television and receive important news and weather reports.

Unfortunately, captions are often riddled with typos and incomplete sentences that leave viewers struggling to make sense of what is being said.

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"It's frustrating," said Cheryl Simpson, a hearing-impaired Norfolk, Va., resident who often has to rely on her husband to tell her what's happening on the screen.

During emergency news alerts, she said, "The stuff you see on the crawl does not match what they are saying."

Tom Wheeler agrees. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission chairman issued new rules that the regulatory agency hopes will improve closed captioning, which is mandated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

"Something needs to be done," Wheeler said of the current state of closed captioning.

The FCC will require that captions match spoken words in dialogue and convey background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible, according to agency officials familiar with the order.

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The order will also mandate that captions not block other content on the screen, overlap one another, run off the edge of the video screen or be blocked by other information.

The bar will be slightly lower for news, sports and other programming that airs live as opposed to entertainment programming that is completed weeks before airing.

However, the agency still wants improvement on the often sloppy captioning that accompanies live programming.

At the FCC meeting, Claude Stout, executive director of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, stressed the need for better captioning of news programming.

"One of the most frightening moments for my wife and I was the sniper shootings that took place in late 2002," Stout said, using sign language. "Local stations in my area showed breaking news on the latest developments, but they were not captioned. We felt trapped and helpless."

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The first TV programming ever to feature captioning was the PBS cooking show "The French Chef" with Julia Child in 1972. But closed captioning didn't become commonplace until the 1990s.

And even when it became a requirement in 1996, the FCC didn't foresee the need for any sort of quality control requirements for the industry.

"The lack of consistency in the quality of TV captioning demonstrates that the original assumptions that the marketplace would ensure quality captions have not borne out," said Karen Peltz Strauss, deputy of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

Wheeler not only expressed frustration about the current state of closed captioning, but he also wasn't happy with how long it took the agency to act on concerns about it.

The FCC was first asked to address the state of closed captioning a decade ago and issued a notice of proposed rules to try to improve the situation in 2005. The matter has pretty much been in limbo until Wheeler, who was sworn in as chairman last November, made it a priority.

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"Ten years is too slow a pace," Wheeler said at the meeting, and then signed, "This is only the beginning."

The majority of closed captioning is outsourced by TV stations and broadcast and cable networks. Jill Toschi, vice president for operations at the National Captioning Institute, said the FCC's actions are a "very positive step" and send a "strong message that caption producers need to be committed quality."

Wheeler promised that the FCC won't forget about this issue going forward.

"We'll keep pace with how it's working," he said.

Could the FCC issue fines to anyone falling short of their expectations?

"We'll see," Wheeler said.

joe.flint@latimes.com

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