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FCC Gives ESPN COVID-19-Related Break on Audio Descriptions

Exterior of the FCC building in Washington, D.C.
(Image credit: FCC)

The FCC has come out with its new list of the top five non-broadcast nets (for the 2019-2020 programming year) subject to audio description mandates and although ESPN didn't technically qualify for a news exemption that keeps it out of that top five due to COVID-19 programming changes, the FCC took that into account and granted it to ESPN anyway.

Audio described programming (formerly called "video described"), mandated by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), is audio that describes important video elements in a program ("couple sits under a tree and he speaks," for example) for the hearing impaired.

According to the CVAA, MVPDs that serve 50,000 or more subs have to provide 87.5 hours of video described programming each calendar quarter on the top five non-broadcast networks they carry, defined as an average of the national audience share during primetime of non-broadcast nets that reach 50% of MVPD households and air at least 50 hours per quarter of non-live or near live content.

The new top five networks subject to the 87.5-hour mandate are TLC, HGTV, Hallmark, History, and TBS.

The top 10 list of networks per Nielsen data were Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, ESPN, and TLC, followed by HGTV, Hallmark, History, TBS, and Discovery. But Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, and ESPN all filed for exemptions as airing less than 50 hours of non-live or near-live programming.

In the case of ESPN, the network said it did air more than 50 hours in the first and second quarters of 2020 because the pandemic caused the cancellation of most live sports, but that by the third quarter it it was again airing fewer than 50 hours of non-exempt programming in prime time.

The FCC's Media Bureau said that the COVID-`19 programming alteration was unprecedented so it was appropriate to exclude those two quarters from its calculations.