With the ever growing popularity of video content for professional businesses and services, there has been an equally growing alienation of certain audiences from this content. Specifically, the lack of Closed Captioning for videos that are leveraging the major video platforms as their principle means of distribution. To this point, and much to my disappointment, Vimeo, a beautiful video platform, does not support Closed Captions (CC) at this time, though they are working it. And YouTube has only recently been making some genuine strides.

As part of your Content Strategy, simply “having” video is not quite enough. Especially if you are using video to distribute any exclusive content. Creating text-based CC appropriate for the video is critical. One of the biggest obstacles at the moment is the differences in formats for the caption files. If you are doing something hosted on your site that leverages the Quicktime player, there is one format for captioning. If you are using YouTube, there is another. They are not a one-for-one port. For this post, I’ll outline a few of the things you should know to be fast and effective at creating text-based CC for your video content on YouTube.

Let’s take a few minutes to get an understanding of the different file formats you can use with YouTube. Then we’ll get on to the how-to parts.

Caption File Format for YouTube Video

A caption file includes the time code in context with the dialogue. Consider time code like the rhythm of the conversation tandem with the pace of the edits. When, and at what pace, should the captions be changing to provide the greatest and most natural readability with the movements of the subjects lips, or the imagery being used. Take a quick look over at Wikipedia for a few more geeky details on time code if you like.

The time code format for YouTube is pretty straight away. Its basic structure is a start and stop marker, each including Hour, Minute, Second, and Thousandths of a Second. The two markers are separated by a comma. The comma tells the system to display the lines of text between these time markers via the linear timeline of the video.

youtube time code format

The format of the file is also rather simple, but important to get right. Open up a .txt text file (sorry, no Word docs). I like using TextMate. Its format should be:

  • time code start point
  • comma (display text until)
  • time code stop point
  • appropriate amount of text to flow in the alloted time, using line breaks as needed

An example:
Caption File Format Example

As a best practice, try to limit your captions to about two lines per sequence. Try to call out key message statements on one line whenever possible.

Once you have the bulk of the sequences done, you can save the file as .txt (text) or a .srt (SubRip Subtitle) file. Then, proceed to the upload feature. (skip to the upload instructions) It is likely that you will upload your file and find that a few tweaks will be required given the pace of the dialogue or the edits. Don’t sweat it. Just be sure to negotiate some time, upfront, in the project timeline to make those adjustments.

Transcript File Format for YouTube

YouTube, via a beta offering, has this lovely little feature that will allow you to upload the transcript of the dialogue for your video, minus the time code. (skip to the upload instructions) It will then process the file. Using its language recognition software, it will add the time code. This is hands down the easiest and fastest way to go.

Just like the caption file, pace your sequences about two lines at the time, placing callouts on a separate and single line when possible. For a three minute video, it usually takes the algorithm less than 5 minutes to process. Please keep in mind, that the longer the video, when using this transcript file format, the more you are asking YouTube’s algorithm to do for you. The more you ask of it, the longer it needs to process.

An example:

YouTube Transcript Format Example

This being a beta offering, there are still a few hiccups here and there, so expect to need to a few extra minutes to clean up a few sections for the sake of timing. This is quite easy to do. Once the file is done processing, simply download the .srt file that now has the system added time code and make your edits. Save the file. Then upload and preview. Seeing as how the file has time code now, the upload is pretty much instant as there is no processing required. You can do this as many times as needed to get it just right.


Adding a Text-Based Closed Caption File to a YouTube Video

  1. Login to your account on YouTube => Go to My Videos => Select the video for which you want to create captions.
  2. In the top navigation you will notice the “Captions and Subtitles” tab. Select it.

  3. Just down on the right, there is an “Add New” button. Click through.

    YouTubes add new captions or transcript button

  4. This is the main interface for uploading your caption or transcript file. The options are for a Caption file, which has the time code pre-populated, or for a transcript file, which is a file that has the text minimally formatted to indicate the flow of the dialogue in the video.

    Simply choose the file, select the file format type you chose to use, name it, and upload.

    YouTubes Caption and Transcript Upload Interface

Though this post is specifically covering the how-to for English language closed captioning, YouTube provides the ability to included captions for sub-titles in other languages than that of the main audio track. As a simple example, you could easily add Spanish or Chinese dependent on your client base and your specific needs. The guidelines above will have you pointed in the right direction to accomplish this as well!