Broadcasters, movie studios, and pretty much everybody else have spent 30 years cooking up one excuse after another not to caption their programming. And it’s happening all over again online.

We’re the first to admit there is some good news here. Many TV channels must, in theory, provide 100% captioning. But they might not have to do that immediately. And they could use improper types of captioning (like scrollup). And there are usually exceptions to the 100% requirement (like foreign-language programming or, incredibly, weather reports). And broadcasters might decide that certain shows just don’t have to be captioned, like subtitled movies.

And, in the U.S., several major movie studios settled a class-action lawsuit and agreed to caption pretty much every bit of video on a wide range of DVDs. But there are still some studios that aren’t covered and some kinds of DVDs that are exempt, like all high-definition DVDs.

So that was good news. Now the bad news.

  • In the U.S., broadcasters misuse a loophole in the captioning regulations and pretend they don’t have to caption anything at all on “new” networks. The funny thing is that these “new” networks are often just high-definition versions of existing networks, or on-demand versions you can call up at any time on your digital cable or satellite box.
  • French-language broadcasters in Canada have maintained – falsely – for almost 30 years that captioning in French is either difficult or impossible. Think of news shows and other live programming – ten years after two different technologies were invented to caption live French shows, it barely ever happens. And it’s only happening now because broadcasters waited around for a third technology to be developed.
  • Almost no movies in theatres are captioned. It’s true that there are a few open-captioned prints of a very few movies, and that quite a few popular films have captions with the MoPix or DTS systems. But there are either very few cinemas with MoPix systems (as in the U.S. and Canada) or very few times of the week when open-captioned movies are shown (as in the U.K. and Australia). And if your town has, say, only one or two cinemas that can show a captioned movie but there are more than that many captioned films available, then you still don’t have the same choice hearing people do.

But the problem that people are paying attention to the most is online video – what you watch on your computer or your iPod or something similar that isn’t a TV or movie screen. It’s almost impossible to find any captioned video online.

Barely any movies you can buy or rent using online services have captioning. Millions of videos on YouTube and similar sites aren’t captioned. If you look around, you’ll find a handful of videos that individuals have laboriously captioned; videos from government agencies who have a budget for captioning; and lots of little test videos from sites that talk about online captioning. Those were little demonstration projects. But if you rely on captioning, you are almost completely out of luck online.

Things are going to get worse before they get better, because many important companies in the online-video industry have decided to work in secret to solve the problem. And they way they’ve committed to solve it is the way we already know doesn’t work – closed captioning. Instead of doing something really easy – burning captions into the video and offering two separate files, on with captions and one without – the industry wants to pretend that the Web is TV. It wants to hide the caption signal along with the video so you can just turn captions on or off if you wish. Since that’s almost the only thing anyone has tried thus far (as with those little demonstration projects mentioned above), we know it’s not going to work.