2010. 10. 01.
Within two weeks, President Obama is expected to sign into law legislation authorizing the FCC to adopt rules mandating local TV broadcasters carry video descriptions for the blind.
The measure, the Twenty-First Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act of 2010, was adopted by the Senate in August and passed the House last night.
Once implemented, it would force the Big Four broadcast networks and their affiliates in the top 25 markets to provide four hours per week of primetime and children’s programming with video descriptions. It exempts live or near live programming. These requirements will take effect one year after the bill’s enactment.
The nation’s top five cable TV networks would also have to provide the service.
The FCC adopted rules similar to the pending legislation in 2000, but broadcasters and program producers challenged the FCC’s authority to mandate such a service. A federal appeals court agreed and threw out the rules in 2002.
Congress is also granting the FCC authority to increase TV stations’ obligations from four to seven hours of video descriptions per week after four years. And in six years, stations in the top 60 DMAs would have to comply with the FCC’s video description rules.
After 10 years, the FCC would be authorized to extend video description duties to up to 10 additional DMAs each year until all 210 markets are covered.
Congress also wants local TV broadcasters to make emergency crawls audible in the top 60 DMAs.
The description service imposes some costs on program producers and broadcasters. Some TV stations already have the necessary equipment to receive the descriptions from their networks and broadcast it along with the regular audio channel. But others may have to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 to pass through the network service. The price tag could go much higher for stations that have to make infrastructure upgrades.
The legislation also requires closed captioning of online video content and ensures that smart phones and other digital media devices are accessible to the deaf and blind.
The measure makes it “easier for the blind and deaf to have access to the Internet, smart phones, television programming and other communications and video technologies,” says Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a key backer of the measure.
“Whether it’s a Braille reader or a broadband connection, access to technology is not a political issue; it’s a participation issue,” Markey says. “Two decades ago, Americans with disabilities couldn’t get around if buildings weren’t wheelchair accessible; today, it’s about being Web accessible.”
The driving force behind the legislation has been the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology, which includes the American Foundation for the Blind, the American Council of the Blind and the American Association of People with Disabilities. The coalition has been pushing for the legislation for three years.
“Really for the first time blind and vision-impaired Americans will have equal access to enjoy primetime television programming. We’re not going to have to rely upon others to understand what’s going on during nonverbal parts of shows,” says Eric Bridges of the American Council of the Blind.
Bridges says the new law would benefit between 25 million and 30 million blind and visually impaired Americans.