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Hearing the blind and helping

Despite disagreement among advocates for the blind, federal regulators Friday ordered large TV stations and cable systems to help the sight-impaired get more out of TV.

Beginning April 2002 Big Four affiliates in top 25 markets must provide at least 50 hours a month-roughly four hours a week-of voice-described prime time or children's programming. Multichannel providers serving 50,000 or more subscribers must adhere to the same description requirements for their top five networks.

FCC Chairman William Kennard, noting that 2000 marks the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said the blind will be able to participate in the cultural mainstream if they can better enjoy TV entertainment.

"Television is the modern day equivalent of the public square," Kennard said during the commission's public meeting.

Although the rules apply to local stations and systems, as a practical matter the government's action will force top broadcast and cable networks to begin descriptions. Why? It would be impractical for each station to add the voices to programming they are receiving from the nets anyway.

Individual stations, however, will be required to buy equipment that transmits the descriptions on the Secondary Audio Programming channel. The descriptions must detail on-screen action not included in a program's soundtrack and will be inserted during pauses in the dialogue.

The rules apply only to analog broadcasts. The commission wants to evaluate how the analog rules perform before moving ahead with a digital version.

Stations and cable systems in smaller markets must also pass through any described programming they receive if they have the "technical capacity."

Broadcasters and the cable industry opposed the new rules, but had no comment after the FCC's action Friday.

The requirements are supported by a coalition of advocates for the blind, disabled and aging, which represents most of the country's 12 million or more sight-impaired people who lost vision late enough in life to comprehend descriptions of physical traits and details that would be covered under the government's rules.

"This is a viable and valuable service," said Margaret Pfanstiehl, coordinator for the National Television Video Access Coalition.

Opposing the rules was the National Federation for the Blind, which represents people who have been blind since birth. The NFB, which has 50,000 members, says adding descriptions of prime time fare is a superficial enhancement. Instead, they want the FCC to require voiced description of all on-screen text, but emergency warnings in particular.

As a partial accommodation to the NFB, the commission ordered TV providers to provide voiced descriptions of any on-screen emergency text when the information is provided as part of a regular newscast or part of newscast that interrupts regular programming. When emergency information is provided as part of on-screen scrolling without stopping regular programming, TV providers must only accompany the information with an aural tone to alert sight-impaired people that some type of warning is being aired.

The FCC said it will one day require all TV providers to offer descriptions after seeing how the new rules work.