FCC Gives Industry Nine Months to Implement Video Descriptions

The FCC has decided to give broadcasters and cable operators nine months, rather than a year, to have their new video description regimes in place.

According to a copy of the order, which was approved on a 4-0 vote, while the industry had asked for a year and the FCC had initially said it proposed giving them until Oct. 1, 2012 to implement it, the commission decided instead to set the deadline at July 1, 2012.

The commission is under a deadline itself since Congress gave it until Oct. 8, 2011 to have the video description rules in place.

The rules implement the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which requires the captioning of any online video that is closed-captioned on TV, and asks the FCC to study captioning of Web-original video. It also requires smartphones and other mobile devices to be accessible to the disabled, if that is achievable, and restores the FCC's video description rules thrown out by the courts in 2002.

The FCC order addresses some of the concerns of small cable operators, providing technical exemptions and clarifying that only systems with at least 50,000 subs in a market will be required to pass through the video descriptions.

The gist of the order is as follows:

"This Order reinstates the requirement that large-market broadcast affiliates of the top four national networks, and multichannel video programming distributor systems ("MVPDs") with more than 50,000 subscribers, provide video description. Covered broadcasters are each required to provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children's programming, per calendar quarter, and covered MVPDs are required to provide the same number of hours on each of the five most popular nonbroadcast networks. This "most popular" list excludes two nonbroadcast networks that primarily air programming recorded less than 24 hours before it is first aired. The rules also require that all network-affiliated broadcasters (commercial or non-commercial) and all MVPDs pass through any video description provided with programming they carry. They must do so, however, only to the extent that they are technically capable of doing so and when that technical capability is not being used for another purpose related to the programming. As required , these rules will be reinstated on October 8, 2011. Broadcast stations and MVPDs subject to the rules must begin full compliance on July 1, 2012."

Commissioner Michael Copps, for one, was pleased with the shortened timetable, though he would have given the industry even less time. "With a July 1, 2012 deadline the full expectation is that the necessary pieces will be in place to seamlessly provide video description.... Although I would have preferred and I am not convinced it would be too burdensome on companies to comply even earlier, I am pleased that the Chairman and my colleagues have moved up the timeline to support the long-delayed hopes of Americans with disabilities. Given the delay experienced by blind and visually impaired viewers for such an essential service we should be doing everything in our power to make sure they don't wait a day more than is necessary," he said in a statement in advance of the item's release.

Copps also gave props to CBS, Fox and TNT for their past video description efforts absent the FCC's rules.

He also gave props to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn for her work on the issue. "In providing video description, America's blind community will not only be able to enjoy the entertainment that video content providers offer, but they will also be part of the conversations around it," said Clyburn. "I want to stress this, as I can imagine how left out a visually impaired child feels when his or her classmates are discussing what happened on a popular show the night before, and to not be a part of that conversation or be able to follow along. The same is true for blind adults, for whom the proverbial water cooler chats about TV shows hold little meaning or enjoyment."

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.