FCC slaps ViacomCBS with $3.5M fine over Pluto TV closed captions

The FCC has reached a settlement with ViacomCBS that levies a $3.5 million fine against the programmer for accessibility rules violations by Pluto TV, its free ad-supported streaming service.

The Commission’s Enforcement Bureau said the settlement with ViacomCBS marks the first consent decree and first enforcement action related to Internet Protocol (IP) closed captioning rules since their adoption in 2012. As part of the settlement, Pluto TV entered into a compliance plan to make sure that non-exempt video programming it streams includes closed captioning.

“The Enforcement Bureau’s investigation confirmed that Pluto failed to comply with the IP closed captioning rules when distributing video programming on numerous platforms used to disseminate Pluto TV,” the FCC wrote in a news release. “Additionally, the company failed to implement the closed captioning functionality requirements and make contact information available to users in order to submit written closed captioning complaints. As a result of Pluto’s actions, individuals with hearing disabilities were unable to access closed captioning when viewing Pluto TV over some platforms.”

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The FCC said that dating back to January 2018, it has received numerous consumer complaints about the absence of closed captions on Pluto TV. In 2019, Pluto TV filed a petition for waiver of accessibility rules on some platforms but ultimately withdrew that request earlier this month.

“Even after being reminded of its closed captioning obligations, after filing the Petition for Waiver, after receiving the [Letter of Inquiry] and throughout the Investigation, Pluto continued to offer Pluto TV on existing platforms and initiated Pluto TV on several new platforms without being in compliance with the IP Closed Captioning Rules,” the FCC wrote in a consent decree.

“We recognize the importance of closed captioning and have been working in close collaboration with the FCC on the consent decree. Pluto TV’s mission, since its onset, has been to entertain the planet. We are committed to ensuring that our audiences can freely enjoy the programming streaming on our platform with ease of use and accessibility," said a Pluto TV spokesperson in a statement.

The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 was designed to ensure people with disabilities have full access to communications services, equipment and video programming. The IP-closed captioning rules apply to the distributors, providers and owners of IP-delivered video programming.