FCC Adopts Accessibility Order

The FCC has adopted an order that would give broadcasters
two years to translate emergency crawls into audio for the blind and
sight-impaired, and for cable operators to pass those along to their viewers as

AsB&C/Multichannel News reported in March, some in the industry had
sought a three-year phase-in, while accessibility advocates had wanted a year.
The FCC split the difference.

Also as already reported, the FCC did not apply the mandate
to over-the-top providers or TV Everywhere delivery of video content, but did
issue a Notice of Further Proposed Rulemaking asking whether it should do so.

The order implements two portions of the 21st Century
Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 having to do with making
sure that emergency information in crawls and graphics that break into regular
programming are accessible.

The order is responsive to both an April deadline for the
part relating to broadcast and cable operators, and an October adoption
deadline targeted to makers of programming.

The FCC will require broadcasters to air a tone along with
on-screen crawls or graphics signaling to the sight-impaired to switch to a
second audio program (SAP), where broadcasters must air, at least twice, an
audio version of the text or a description of the graphic, which can be

Cable operators and other MVPDs will have to pass along
those descriptions. Some broadcasters, pointing to the difficulty of providing
audio for crawls and graphics that are not delivered as text, had suggested the
tone could signal the hearing impaired to tune to the radio for emergency info.

The National Association of Broadcasters had asked that the
mandate apply only to critically urgent information pointing out that not every
crawl during a storm "identifies an urgent issue directly affecting life,
health, safety or property," for example having to translate the entire
list of school closings. The FCC provides some flexibility in the order to deal
with those situations.

"We decline to make any substantive revisions to the
current definition of emergency information," the FCC said, "but
clarify that severe thunderstorms and other severe weather events are included
within the current definition."

The Weather Channel and DirecTV got a waiver, which gives
the channel more time and flexibility to come up with devices that allow them
to provide aural emergency info on a secondary audio stream.

That National Association of Broadcasters, NCTA and The
Weather Channel had all proposed granting them flexibility beyond the secondary
audio channel to make the info accessible, but the FCC said no. "We
believe that mandating the use of the secondary audio stream to provide an
aural representation of visual emergency information is a better approach to
provide consistency for the viewing audience, particularly given the
overwhelming support in the record for this method," the commission said.

The FCC did not rule on whether to grant waivers to small
cable systems that lack the equipment to pass through the emergency info.
"Although we are sympathetic to the issues raised by ACA, we do not
believe that we have an adequate record upon which to address its proposals in
the context of the instant proceeding," the commission said. Commissioner
Ajit Pai said he hoped the FCC would grant such requests.

"We appreciate the time that the FCC spent considering
our concerns and request for relief, and understand the FCC's interest in
gathering more data to ensure that it is appropriately balancing the interests
of the blind and visually impaired community with those of small cable
operators," said American Cable Association president Matt Polka.
"Although cable operators do not need to comply with the new mandates for
two years, ACA plans to start work on that waiver petition at once so that we
can quickly eliminate the regulatory uncertainty that now exists regarding when
and how these systems can comply with Congress' goal of conveying emergency
information in a manner accessible to individuals who are blind or visually

He also thanked commissioner Pai for his support. 

The vote was 4-0. The chairman had already voted
the item before he announced he was leaving the commission. Commissioner Robert
McDowell, who is also leaving and looking for his next posting, did not participate
in the vote.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.