WRC Settles Tornado Coverage Complaint

WRC-TV Washington parent NBC Universal has agreed to pay $12,000 and institute captioning procedures to ensure that emergency information the station broadcasts is accessible to hearing-impaired viewers.

That was part of a consent decree NBC entered into with the FCC to settle a complaint that it had failed to make warnings visually that it had provided aurally during coverage of a thunderstorm/tornado watch in Washington May 25, 2004.

In May 2005, the FCC proposed fining it $16,000 for failing to provide closed captioning or some other type of on-screen visual cue to accompany their meteorologists' warnings that viewers in some areas should take cover as a powerful thunderstorm/tornado watch hit the region May 25, 2004.

WRC failed to provide visual versions of warnings issued by meteorologist Bob Ryan, who told viewers in southern Prince George's County, Md., to stay away from windows and go to interior rooms.

Ryan first issued the warning to Prince George's viewers at 8:42 p.m. At 9:02 p.m., he issued a similar warning to all viewers who observed high winds. WRC failed to provide any visual version of these warnings. The FCC considered WRC's failure to visually relay the warnings to both sets of viewers as two separate violations.

NBC at the time defended its coverage: "WRC is committed to serving their hearing-impaired viewers during weather emergencies. WRC offers nearly 40 hours per week of captioning of local news and has policies in place to ensure captioning appears during all severe weather reports. We regret that  there was an approximately 45-minute period during a storm last May where our captioning capability did not work appropriately. We reviewed the incident and implemented additional safeguards."

Two other Washington stations were also cited at the time for similar omissions.

Broadcasters aren't required to closed-caption all emergency information--the logistics of that would be enormous, particularly for smaller stations--but they have to make sure it is relayed in some accessible form, including crawls or graphics, or something as simple as "handwriting on a blackboard."

Two Florida TV stations, fined $24,000 fine apiece for their coverage of Hurricane Charley, argued that it was "overenforcement" to single out a few seconds in days-long coverage, and could even discourage such coverage for fear of slipping up and getting fined. They also cited praise they had gotten for their coverage and pointed to the accolades Gulf Coast stations were getting for Katrina reports.

The FCC earlier in 2005 also fined stations covering California wildfires for failing to make some info accessible to hearing impaired. It was greeted with similar incredulity from broadcasters who had continued to report while their own property and families were endangered by the fires.

In what could be a road map for NBC U's other stations, as well as those owned by others and cited for similar violations, WRC agreed to do the following (the language is a direct quote from the consent decree):

"(a) The Station either will commence captioning or contact its captioning service promptly before or contemporaneously with any broadcast coverage of a pending or imminent emergency that endangers the Station's principal coverage area and will make its best reasonable efforts to ensure that coverage of the emergency is captioned as soon as possible;

"(b) The Station will maintain visible postings on television sets in the Station's newsroom that remind employees to contact the Station's captioning service during emergency events and include the phone number for that service;

"(c) The Station will maintain a labeled speed-dial button on telephones in the Station's newsroom with a direct connection to the Station's captioning service;

"(d) As circumstances warrant, the Station will provide special weather text graphics to hearing impaired viewers with shelter-at-home tips during coverage of tornado, severe thunderstorm, flash flooding or other weather emergencies;

"(e) The Station will adopt an emergency visual presentation policy requiring that all emergency information broadcast outside a regularly scheduled WRC newscast be accompanied by captioning if emergency information is conveyed via the Station’s audio.  When circumstances warrant, such information will also include a clear text graphic or text crawl (e.g., weather-related emergencies, security evacuation details).  Emergency information will include any information relating to an imminent or ongoing emergency affecting the Washington, D.C. television market and that is intended to protect life, health, or property;

"(f) The Station will distribute, at least every six months, the Station's emergency visual presentation policy to all employees;

"(g) The Station will incorporate the Station's emergency visual presentation policy into the Station's annual news employee training session."

John Eggerton

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.