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Court axes video description rules

TV stations and cable systems no longer must provide narration for the blind,
after federal appeals judges threw out the FCC's mandate Friday.

The court ruled that the FCC overstepped its authority because Congress
ordered the agency only to investigate the need for video description services
but did not specifically give authority to impose the requirements.

Although the protocol of agency heads required FCC Chairman Michael Powell to
defend rules when challenged in court, he voted against them as a commissioner
during the chairmanship of William Kennard.

The rules were challenged in court by Hollywood, NAB and NCTA, which argued
that video description services should be voluntary.

'Our member companies support video description on a voluntary basis, and we
will continue to make available our filmed entertainment to as wide an audience
as possible, specifically including the blind and those with impaired vision,'
said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America in a
statement Friday.

It's unclear whether descriptions will actually halt because of the court

In April the court refused the trade groups' request to delay implementation
until a final ruling. Consequently, many stations and cable systems paid for
extra equipment needed to pass through descriptions.

The rules required Big Four O&Os and affiliates in top-25 markets to
provide at least 50 hours each quarter, or roughly four hours per week, of video
described prime time or children's programming.

Cable systems and direct broadcast systems with 50,000 or more subscribers
also must provide at the same amount of programming on cable nets ranked in the
top five during the fiscal year ending September 2000.

They are Lifetime, USA Network, TBS Superstation, Nickelodeon and TNT.

Additionally, all TV stations and multichannel distributors regardless of its
market size were ordered to pass through all video description received from
programmers if they had the technical capability, unless the broadcast station
makes another, program-related use of the SAP channel.

Although the rules applied only to stations and cable systems, as a practical
matter the broadcast and cable nets responsible for adding description to the

The networks said narration services cost between $2,000 and $4,000 an

The cost to stations and cable system was been open to debate.

Advocates for the blind said stations already equipped to carry Spanish on
the SAP channel would spend virtually nothing.

Others needed $25,000 for the SAP generator.

Broadcasters at the time said the costs could be $160,000 and higher for
stations that haven't built a SAP infrastructure.

To get the new network feed on the air, they said, some stations needed to
add capacity to links between their studios and transmitters, which could be
miles apart.

Some cable systems were expected to spend as much as $200,000 each to add
audio demodulator cards to their satellite receivers or stereo generators with
headend SAP capability for each of the described cable networks.

WGBH Educational Foundation, which also provides narration services, said 169
public stations SAP-ready when the rule was established spent only $5,000 to