If TV’s far-sighted, it will serve the blind

If TV’s far-sighted, it will serve the blind

2010. 09. 03.

If you have your sight and you’ve never listened to video description service for the blind, you ought to. You soon realize what a wonderful enhancement it is to TV programming for the millions of Americans with little or no sight. They can follow the plots, “see” the characters and get all the jokes.

As we reported earlier this week, when Congress gets back from its summer recess, it is expected to send legislation to the president directing the FCC to impose rules requiring broadcasters to provide a video description service.

The proposed rules are modest, initially requiring only network O&Os and affiliates in the top 25 markets to provide four hours a week of described programming. Stations in smaller markets will have to provide some level of service over 10 years.

But broadcasters and the Hollywood producers that work for them shouldn’t wait for the FCC and they shouldn’t take their time in rolling out the service. They should embrace the service and provide descriptions on as many of their shows as they can as quickly as they can. They should go way beyond what Congress and the FCC are asking.

They should do it because it elevates their status as good corporate citizens, because it underscores broadcast television as the unique and democratic medium that serves everybody and because it is the right thing to do.

Besides, broadcasters sort of promised to 10 years ago.

In 2000, the FCC adopted description requirements similar to those in the current legislation. Broadcasters in league with cable operators and program producers challenged them. In 2002, a court of appeals struck down the rules saying the FCC had overreached its authority.

In one of its FCC filings, the NAB said that the requirements should be postponed until after the digital transition.

Well, guess what folks, it’s after the digital transition, 15 months after. It’s time to step up.

There are costs involved, which is the big reason nobody really wants to bother with the descriptions.

First, we’re told, it costs between $2,000 and $4,000 per hour to produce the extra audio channel with descriptions. That hardly registers on the budgets of scripted network programs that can run to $2 million or more per episode. When I first got on this soap box in 2000 as editor of B&C, I suggested that, if $4,000 were a problem, the producers simply cut back on the caterer and let Geena Davis bag her lunch on Tuesdays. I amend that today to Tim Roth.

The hit on the broadcasters would be more significant. Many will have to spend up to $25,000 to buy and install the necessary encoder to pass through the description channel. Some may have to spend tens of thousands more for infrastructure upgrades.

This can be serious money to strapped broadcasters, particularly in smaller markets, where owners and managers are watching every dime and balancing payroll with capital expenses.

But the legislation is aimed initially at only the networks and their affiliates in the top 25 markets. Surely, they can still afford to make the necessary upgrades without undue suffering. And broadcasters in markets below DMA 25 could take their time.

Look, I don’t like government regulations of this sort. They’re intrusive, and often unconstitutional. Readers of this column know that I believe that the typical station already does plenty to justify its existence and its continued use of the spectrum.

However, the legislation and implementing FCC rules are likely going to happen. Broadcasters should make the best of the situation and demonstrate that they are the good guys by doing more than is required. It will pay dividends when the FCC refocuses on its plan to shift spectrum from broadcast to broadband.

Remember, we are only talking about pass through of network programming with descriptions. The legislation recognizes the inherent difficulties involved in describing news and other live productions, and doesn’t expect any station to do it. (Congress does want stations to figure out a way to provide emergency alerts with audio.)

NBCU is trying to win brownie points in Washington to grease its merger with Comcast. What better way than for NBC to announce next week that it will be providing descriptions of all its shows this season. Advocates for the blind would happily stage the press conference.

Hollywood should pick up the tab for the producing the extra audio channel with the descriptions. Starting this fall, no new drama or sitcom should be shipped off to a network without the descriptions. Four hours a week? By the end of the season, each network should be able to boast of doing three times that.

What’s Hollywood incentive? Well, how about money.

TV shows with descriptions can be monetized. Believe it or not, the blind are just like everybody else. They go to the movies and theater, subscribe to cable and surf the Web (with the help of software that reads all the text on the screen). And they are an economic force.

My hunch is many would be willing to pay for the audio of popular TV shows if they came with descriptions. The studios could offer the shows on CDs or DVDs or as MP3 files that could be downloaded on an on-demand basis. How about a website that streams described audio with commercials? Hulu for the blind.

Speaking of commercials, it would make sense for advertisers to begin describing, too. The next time you’re watching TV and a commercial pod comes on, close your eyes. You’ll be surprised at how many don’t make sense. The blind may not be buying cars, but they are buying just about everything else that sighted people are.

There could even be a market for sighted people. Audio books are big business. According to the Audio Publishers Association, sales approached $1 billion last year and continue to grow.

A described TV show is much the same as an audio book. Rather than The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, you might pop a CD of Glee in your car player on the way to work and enjoy it without missing any of the action.

I’ll tell you what. If the program copyright owners conclude that the described audio they create for the networks has no value and the networks aren’t interested, they can transfer the rights to me. I’ll make the fortune.

For our story on video description this week, none of the networks wanted to talk to us. You can’t blame ABC, NBC and Fox for laying low. They can hardly be proud of their record on this front. Of the three, only Fox regularly airs any described programming, and it’s not much: one half hour per week, The Simpsons.

But I am surprised that CBS didn’t crow a little. The network has faithfully and voluntarily aired several hours of described programming each week for the past several years.

CBS deserves praise. It led. The rest of the industry now has to follow.

By Harry A. Jessell