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Nets Still Talk the Talk

For the moment at least, TV networks are providing video-description services for the blind even though federal judges have thrown out a government quota. Hollywood says it will continue to provide descriptions as well. For their part, however, advocates for the blind want something in writing, preferably a congressional mandate.

"Our service isn't going away," says Jim Stovall, president of the Narrative Television Network, which adds narration to broadcast- and cable-network shows. "This morning, four networks sent us overnight packages of programming mailed after the court decision. They are scheduled to run with description next month or in January."

Stovall's clients include seven of the nine broadcast and cable networks required by the FCC to provide the service.

Two of those nets, TNT and TBS, are "reviewing the decision and will make a decision for the longer term in about two weeks," said Shirley Powell, spokeswoman for the nets. An NBC spokesman said that network also is reviewing the decision but predicted that programs with "long lead-times," such as movies, will continue to be aired with narration.

Court: FCC overstepped

It's also unclear whether local TV stations and cable systems will continue the service long-term, especially those that still have to upgrade technical facilities to carry the narration.

A federal appeals court in Washington ruled Nov. 8 that the FCC overstepped its authority in ordering networks to provide video descriptions. The judges concluded that Congress had ordered the agency only to investigate the need for the service but had not specifically authorized it to mandate it.

Although FCC Chairman Michael Powell was obliged to defend the rules when they were challenged in court, he had voted against them as a commissioner during the chairmanship of William Kennard.

The rules were challenged in court by Hollywood, NAB and NCTA, which argued that video description services should be voluntary.

Despite an uptick in business when the mandate took effect in April, Stovall said consumer demand is the prime driver for description services. "We're upbeat about the service. We've been in business since 1988 and, for 14 years, did not have a government mandate. We have every reason to believe that the networks providing programming are going to continue."

Advocates plan push

Indeed, the very industry groups that fought the rule in court praise description services when they're provided voluntarily. "Our member companies support video description on a voluntary basis," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, in a statement, "and we will continue to make available our filmed entertainment to as wide an audience as possible, specifically including the blind and those with impaired vision."

Despite that assurance, officials from the American Council of the Blind said they will push Congress to enact a description mandate.

In July 2000, the FCC adopted video-description rules to make TV more accessible to people with vision disabilities. The rules took affect last April and required stations to carry voiced descriptions of on-screen action and scenery that allow the blind to participate in the television experience even if they can't actually see it. The descriptions were carried on the Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) channel commonly used for Spanish translation.

Because the FCC required stations to comply with the kick-in date, instead of waiting for the court challenge to be resolved, many stations and cable systems paid for the extra equipment to pass through descriptions.

Four hours a week

The rules required Big Four O&Os and affiliates in top-25 markets to provide at least 50 hours each quarter, or roughly four hours a week, of video described prime time or children's programming.

Cable systems and direct-broadcast systems with 50,000 or more subscribers also must provide the same amount of programming on the cable nets that were ranked in the top five during the fiscal year ended September 2000: Lifetime, USA Network, TBS Superstation, Nickelodeon and TNT.

Additionally, all TV stations and multichannel distributors, regardless of market size, were ordered to pass through all video description received from programmers if they had the technical capability to do so, unless the broadcast station makes another, program-related use of the SAP channel.