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FCC Cites D.C. Stations For Captioning Violations

Washington stations WJLA, WTTG, and WRC face FCC fines for failing to provide closed captioning or some other type of on-screen visual cue to accompany their meteorologists' warnings that viewers in some areas should take cover as a powerful thunderstorm/tornado watch hit the region May 25, 2004.

ABC-owned WJLA faces a $8,000 fine and NBC-owned WRC and Fox-owned WTTG face $16,000 fines apiece. The stations can appeal before the forfeitures become final.

The FCC's enforcement bureau found that WJLA failed to make visual warnings of meteorologist Doug Hill recommendations to Leesburg and Lucketts, Va., to take cover in their basements and interior rooms and  "cover themselves with blankets and quilts." Hill's warning came at 6:50 p.m. but WJLA did not provide any visual presentation of this information for another two and a half hours.

In its defense, WJLA said that despite the lapse in one isolated warning, visual versions of other storm coverage were provided repeatedly during the night. "I am surprised and disappointed that the FCC chose to focus on one statement in a three-hour span, and to fine the station for this one isolated incident" said Jerald Fritz, senior VP of legal and strategic affairs for parent Allbritton Communications. We believe hearing-impaired viewers seeing maps, color coded for storm intensity, and on-screen crawls had the information necessary to take shelter," Fritz said, though he added that the station still planned to pay the fine.

But the FCC said that warnings to take shelter are among the most important and WJLA's delay was "tantamount to not providing the information at all."

Similarly, WRC failed to provide visual versions of warnings issued by meteorologist Bob Ryan, who told viewers in southern Prince George's County, Md. stay away from window and go to interior rooms.

Ryan first issued the warning to Prince George's viewers at 8:42 p.m. At 9:02 p.m.m he issued a similar warning to all viewers who observed high winds. WRC failed to provide any visual version of these warnings. The FCC considered WRC's failure to visually relay the warnings to both sets of viewers as two separate violations.

NBC spokeswoman Shannon Jacobs responded Thursday:  "WRC is committed to serving their hearing-impaired viewers during weather emergencies. WRC offers nearly 40 hours per week of captioning of local news and has policies in place to ensure captioning appears during all severe weather reports. We regret that  there was an approximately 45-minute period during a storm last May where our captioning capability did not work appropriately. We reviewed the incident and implemented additional safeguards."
The FCC identified two instances in which WTTG "aurally provided emergency information regarding the way to take shelter in one’s home but failed to provide the visual presentation of that emergency information."  In one, it said, "Gwen Tolbart told viewers in the Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland areas that they should take cover, go to the lowest level of their house, and stay close to the floor. Fox failed to provide closed captioning or any visual presentation of this emergency information on WTTG," the FCC said.

The complaints were filed by Cheryl A. Heppner, executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, based in the Washington suburb of Fairfax.

FCC rules approved in 2000 require TV stations and cable operators to provide visual versions of emergency information voiced during a broadcast, either through closed captioning or by other visual presentations, such as on-screen graphics that all viewers can read.

Thursday's proposed fines were the second instance of the FCC proposing penalties against stations that failed to make emergency warnings available in visual form.

The first fines were proposed in February against San Diego TV stations that failed in a few instances to provide visual warnings during southern California's 2003 wildfire outbreak.
Those stations, too, expessed frustration over the proposed fines and the fact that those few instances came among days' worth of coverage from staffers that, in some cases, faced the destruction of their own homes and property.