Besides helping to make the Web more accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing, the captioning represents a potential benefit to members of AOL's wider audience when trying to access streaming video in public places.
"This is the first consistent programming that is being offered with captions over the Web, said Jennifer Sagalyn, director of strategic partnerships at WGBH's Media Access Group, a pioneer in media accessibility and a partner in the AOL initiative. She said that beyond mandated captioning on government Webcasts, video with closed captioning on the Web remains scarce.
WGBH's Media Access Group is also working with Yahoo on making the Web portal more accessible, but that the company's efforts on captioning are still more in the discussion phase.
AOL first introduced captioning on a limited basis three years ago on the "Princess Natasha" cartoon series, on its KOL service for kids. It also offered captions for CNN news updates that were limited to the text of an anchor's script.
Now, CNN videos will be captioned manually, as on TV, to ensure that all of the audio including unscripted material and sounds will be accessible. "We believe it's essential to work through a lot of the technical hurdles that prevent widespread adoption of closed captioning on the Web," said Tom Wlodkowski, director of accessibility for AOL.
One of the key challenges of captioning video online is the Internet's demand for continually updated and new material. Wlodkowski said that captioned CNN video may be delayed by as much as 30 minutes after non-captioned material is available on AOL.
To activate the captions, users click on a "CC" button that appears on the AOL Media Player beneath the video window. The minimum requirements for watching close-captioned videos are Windows 2000 or Windows XP operating system, Windows Media Player 7.1 or higher and Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher.
While captioned videos are now limited to CNN headlines and news stories, AOL plans to add captioning for other content--likely starting with entertainment programming--in the coming months. While AOL's work in closed captioning has been praised by leaders in the deaf community, the company believes it will attract an even wider audience among its users.
Wlodkowski imagines Web captioning becoming useful more generally in noisy public places or at work, much as TV captioning is now prevalent in bars, restaurants, and gyms. "So we envision that there are certainly residual benefits to the general audience," he said.