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Blind injustice

The National Association of Broadcasters has an annual operating budget of $40 million, 180 employees and, apparently, not enough to do. How so? It has directed its capable legal department to overturn the new FCC rules requiring TV stations to offer a description service for the blind.

The first volley in this campaign came in the form of an FCC petition challenging the agency's authority to impose the rules and suggesting that the rules be postponed until TV stations make their move to digital-that is, until some future date that no one knows but is definitely way out there.

I can tell you right now the FCC will in all likelihood reject the NAB petition. That makes NAB's next stop the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. But going to court on this would be a bad idea. In fact, NAB top lawyer Jeff Baumann ought to send one of his crew over to the Portals and recover every copy of the petition so the NAB can pretend that it was never filed.

The big, bad NAB, representing an industry with annual revenues of $50 billion, should not be running around Washington trying to weasel out of providing a modest service to 12 million people who are blind or severely visually impaired, many of them elderly. It looks bad.

I shouldn't pick on the NAB. The National Cable Television Association and the Motion Picture Association of America also want the rules to go away and have joined the NAB in questioning the FCC's authority.

Last July, the FCC ordered each of the Big Four affiliates in the top 25 markets to offer at least 50 hours per quarter-roughly four hours per week-of described prime time or children's programming. Satellite TV operators and large cable systems (50,000 subscribers plus) must deliver the same amount of prime time programming over the top-five rated cable networks (currently, USA, TNT, TBS, Nickelodeon and Lifetime).

All other TV stations and cable systems don't have to do anything except pass through the service if they are technically able. The rules go into effect in April 2002.

The descriptions greatly enhance programs for the blind. During breaks in the dialog, a trained descriptor describes the action, the characters, the wardrobes and the settings. For the first time, the blind can fully appreciate what's going on. They get more of the jokes.

I suspect the associations' problem with the new rules comes down to money. Their members are going to have to pick up the cost of describing the programming and transmitting it over the little-used SAP channels.

First comes the cost of producing the descriptions. This will fall on program producers, well-heeled studios like FOX, Columbia and Paramount. But, according to WGBH-TV Boston, which has been describing programs for PBS for 10 years, the cost is no more than $4,000 per hour.

That's not going to break any prime time programming budgets, which now run around $1.5 million per hour. Of course, if it is a problem, I suggest that producers cut back on the caterer. Let Geena Davis bag her lunch on Tuesdays.

The NAB claims each stations will have to spend, on average, $161,000 each to get their SAP channels in gear. Hmmm. Trade associations tend to, how shall we say, exaggerate such numbers. According to WGBH-TV , 169 noncommercial stations got their SAP channels going for between $5,000 and $25,000 per. Even doubled, those figures don't seem terribly burdensome.

Rather than whine about having to improve service to the blind, the NAB ought to embrace descriptions and do whatever it can to ensure that every commercial TV station-not just the top 100-can broadcast them. And the NCTA should see that every cable system, regardless of size, is so equipped. All it takes is some leadership.

CABLE inducted the late Vince Wasilewski into its Hall of Fame. Vince worked 33 years for NAB, retiring as its president in 1982. In accepting the honor, his widow, Margie, recalled how "powerful the spoken word" had become to Vince as his eyesight failed in his final years.

The NAB ought to keep her words in mind as it considers that court appeal.