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Look who's talking

The television industry is living a double life when it comes to a new service for the blind. Broadcasting and cable trade groups have sued to eliminate rules requiring narration of some prime time and children's programs in 25 of the country's largest markets. At the same time, the television industry is winning praise from the visually impaired community for efforts to comply with the mandate.

"For something that has gone from zero to implementation very quickly, it's going fairly smoothly. Everybody's doing a good job," says Jim Stovall, president of the Narrative Television Network. Stovall has a complicated relationship with the TV business. His organization fought for the rules over industry opposition and is now defending them in court. At the same time, more than half the networks required to provide narration have hired NTN to provide the voiced descriptions.

At issue are rules that kicked in April 1 requiring Big Four-affiliated stations in the top 25 markets to provide what amounts to four hours a week of video description for prime time or children's programming. Cable and satellite-TV systems with 50,000 or more subscribers have identical requirements for each of the top five national non-broadcast nets as of the end of 1999: Lifetime, USA, TBS, Nickelodeon and TNT.

Additionally, in all markets, broadcast stations that have the technical capability must pass through any video description received from a programmer. Cable and DBS systems with the technical ability also must pass through description received from broadcasters and other programming providers.

The National Association of Broadcasters, National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the Motion Picture Association of America unsuccessfully petitioned the FCC to postpone the effective date pending a legal challenge to the rules. They argue that the mandate violates their First Amendment rights.

The federal appeals court in Washington will hear oral argument in the case Sept. 6. The trade groups argue that the mandate to carry 50 hours of video description per quarter is likely to be overturned because Congress ordered the FCC only to study the need for description services and did not give it explicit authority to require them.

TV stations will rely on the networks to provide the actual narration, which will be transmitted via the Second Audio Program (SAP) that accompanies each TV frequency.

Regardless of the case's outcome, advocates for the blind predict that the TV business will continue to increase video description services.

The networks are paying narration services between $2,000 and $4,000 an hour to get programs ready. How much TV stations will have to spend is open to debate. Advocates for the blind say stations already equipped to carry Spanish on the SAP channel will spend virtually nothing. Others will need to pay $25,000 for the SAP generator.

Broadcasters counter that the cost could go to $160,000 and higher for stations that haven't built the SAP infrastructure. To get the new network feed on the air, some stations may have to add capacity to the links between their studios and transmitters, which could be miles apart. "A lot of stations were not built with SAP capacity, period," says NAB attorney Jack Goodman.

Some cable systems will spend as much as $200,000 each to add audio demodulator cards to their satellite receivers or stereo generators with headend SAP capability for each of the described cable networks.

WGBH Educational Foundation, which also provides narration services, said 169 public stations SAP-ready when the rule was established spent only $5,000 to $25,000.