Free to air TV

Two acts of Parliament, the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) (BSA) and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) (DDA) have driven the growth of captioning on Australian television. When digital television began in 2001, the BSA made it compulsory for networks to caption all programs between 6 pm and 10pm, and all news and current affairs programs.

Subsequent to this, a series of agreements between the free-to-air networks, Deaf Australia and the Deafness Forum of Australia, brokered by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), saw the networks agree to increased caption quotas between 6 am and midnight, rising to 85% in 2011. In return for agreeing to these captioning levels, the AHRC granted an exemption to the networks under the DDA with regard to captioning.

This process has now been replaced by further amendments to the BSA which were passed in June 2012. These make it compulsory to caption 90% of programs broadcast between 6 am and midnight in 2012, and this will rise to 100% in 2014.

The Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice also deals in part with captioning.

Broadcasting Services Act

Following recommendations in the Federal Government's Media Access Review final report, the BSA was amended so that commercial and national broadcast licencees must caption, on their main channels:

  • 90% of programs between 6 am and midnight in 2012-2013
  • 95% of programs betwen 6 am  and midnight in 2013-2014
  • 100% of programs between 6 am  and midnight after 1 July 2014.

They must also caption all television news or current affairs programs whenever they are transmitted.

Some programming is automatically exempt from the captioning levels required in the BSA, including:

  • Television programs that are not in English or mainly not in English;
  • Non-vocal music only programs;
  • Incidental or background music; and
  • Live sports programming where unscheduled, extended coverage displaces a news program.

Community broadcasting licensees are also exempt from captioning requirements.

Rules for multichannels

The BSA has separate captioning requirements for free-to-air multichannels. A multichannel is a channel operated by a licensee that offers a series of channels. One of those channels is designated a primary channel and the remainder are multichannels.

Examples are: 

  • Seven (primary channel); 7Two (multichannel) and 7Mate (multichannel);
  • ABC1 (primary channel); ABC2 (multichannel), ABC3 (multichannel), ABCNews24 (multichannel);
  • WIN (primary channel); Go!(multichannel); Gem (multichannel)

The rule for multichannels is that any program that has been shown with captions on a primary channel and is repeated on a multichannel must also be shown with captions. For example, if SBS1 shows a program with captions and this is repeated on SBS2, it too must be captioned. This does not apply when a program was shown on a primary channel but then repeated on a multichannel that is not linked to that primary channel. For example, Ten provides captions on a movie that it shows. Later that same movie is shown on Go!, it is not required to be captioned as Go! is not a multichannel offered by Ten.

There is an active review of the captioning requirements for multichannels.

Exemption applications

Licensees may also apply for an exemption from the captioning requirements for a period of 1-5 years. This exemption application may be for the whole quota or a reduction in the required quota. The application process is public. The Australian Communications and Media Authority publishes the application online and calls for public comment before making its final determination.

Caption quality requirements

The BSA also covers caption quality standards that apply to free to air channels. This is determined and enforced by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Reporting against captioning requirements                  

Within 90 days of the end of the financial year, the licensee must provide a report to the ACMA outlining detailing its compliance with the captioning requirements. The ACMA must then publish this report on its website.

Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice

Section 1.23 of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice requires that Licensees:

1.23.1  ensure that closed-captioning is clearly indicated in station program guides, in press advertising, in program promotions and at the start of the program;

1.23.2  exercise due care in broadcasting closed captioning, and ensure that there are adequate procedures for monitoring closed captioning transmissions;

1.23.3  provide adequate advice to hearing-impaired viewers if scheduled closed captioning cannot be transmitted.  If technical problems prevent this advice from being provided in closed captioned form, it must be open captioned as soon as reasonably practicable;

1.23.4  when broadcasting emergency, disaster or safety announcements, provide the essential information visually, whenever practicable.  This should include relevant contact numbers for further information.

Section 7.7 requires that licensees will provide regular on-air information about the Code and its complaints procedures.  Furthermore:

7.7.1    Licensees will broadcast 360 on-air spots each calendar year, across all viewing zones.  This information must be closed captioned.

7.7.2    A reasonable proportion of this on-air information will also explain how viewers may obtain copies of the Code.


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