Policy

FCC to Give the Word on Captioning

Draft Seeks Best Practices, but Not Penalties or Standards 2/10/2014 12:00 AM Eastern

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler has teed up a vote on a three-part closed-captioning item that will require cable operators and broadcasters to make best efforts to improve their closed captions.

The item does not propose fines or include specific standards, as some disability groups had sought, and defers some of the tougher calls to a further notice of proposed rulemaking. The new rules are slated to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015.

A new draft reflecting possible tweaks from the offices of the commissioners and the general counsel is expected this week, but sources inside and outside the FCC said they were not looking for drastic changes.

The item, on the agenda for the FCC’s Feb. 20 meeting, is still a moving target, as one cable lobbyist put it. Sources familiar with the item said it could well change by a second draft, but an FCC source said the change would likely not make the requirements more stringent. In the wake of complaints about the quality of captions — some garbled, some running over into the next scene, some absent altogether — Wheeler had reached out to industry players, signaling he wants TV stations and cable operators to do a better job. Universal access to communications, with a particular focus on the disabled community, is one of the network “compact” values Wheeler has said undergird everything the commission is going to do.

Cable operators and broadcasters, in meetings with FCC staffers, had responded with pledges of improved best practices and argued against mandates. More meetings are planned for next week in the run-up to the vote.

The FCC source said the commission did not expect much complaint from cable operators over the current draft and its focus on best practices and best efforts, and that broadcasters seemed fairly content as well.

The FCC has asked separately for comment on whether to start applying the existing online video captioning mandate to clips as well as full-length programming, with a particular focus on news clips.

Coincidentally, a California court backed CNN’s argument that it did not have to caption an online clip.

TAKEAWAY

The absence of penalties, specific standards and metrics in the FCC’s new closedcaptioning item should sit well with cable operators.

Spectrum Auction: By the Numbers

WASHINGTON — At press time, the Federal Communications Commission’s H-block auction was moving incrementally toward its aggregate floor price of $1.564 billion, with $1,273,053,000 bid as of round 50.

The auction, which began Jan. 22, could end at any time — it is over when a round has are no new bids or withdrawals or waivers in a round. But some FCC auctions have stretched into hundreds of rounds, and tallied some big bucks. The take to date was for the 700-MHz broadcast spectrum auction, which earned more than $18 billion. The record for number of rounds is 318 for a paging-band spectrum auction in 2010. The longest auction was for broadband PCS licenses; it started in August 1996 and didn’t end until January 1997.

The chart shows the top 10 spectrum auctions in terms of aggregate bids of the past two decades. (The FCC has only been auctioning spectrum since 1994. Before that, it assigned spectrum by lottery and before that via comparative hearings.)

The H block is already number seven on that list of biggest moneymakers (so long as it meets its minimum price, which Dish Network has essentially guaranteed), but would have to top $2 billion to move up the list. — John Eggerton

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