FCC Adopts Accessibility Order

Agency Outlines Requirements for Cable Operators, Broadcasters

The FCC has adopted an order that would give broadcasters two years to translate emergency crawls into audio for the blind and sight-impaired, and for cable operators to pass those along to their viewers as well.

As Multichannel News reported last month, some in industry had sought a three-year phase-in, while accessibility advocates had wanted a year. The FCC split the difference.

Also as previously reported, the FCC did not apply the mandate to over-the-top providers or TV Everywhere delivery of video content, but did issue a Notice of Further Proposed Rulmaking asking whether it should do so.

The order implements two portions of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 having to do with making sure that emergency information in crawls and graphics that break into regular programming are accessible.

The order is responsive to both an April deadline for the part relating to broadcast and cable operators, and an October adoption deadline targeted to makers of programming.

The FCC will require broadcasters to air a tone along with on-screen crawls or graphics signaling to the sight impaired to switch to a second audio channel (SAP), where broadcasters must air, at least twice, an audio version of the text or a description of the graphic, which can be text-to-speech.

Cable operators and other MVPDs will have to pass along those descriptions. Some broadcasters, pointing to the difficulty of providing audio for crawls and graphics that are not delivered as text, had suggested the tone could signal the hearing impaired to tune to the radio for emergency info.

The National Association of Broadcasters had asked that the mandate apply only to critically urgent information pointing out that not every crawl during a storm "identifies an urgent issue directly affecting life, health, safety or property," for example having to translate the entire list of school closings. The FCC provides some flexibility in the order to deal with those situations.

"We decline to make any substantive revisions to the current definition of emergency information," the FCC said, "but clarify that severe thunderstorms and other severe weather events are included within the current definition."

The Weather Channel and DirecTV received a waiver, which gives the channel more time and flexibility to come up with devices that allow them to provide aural emergency info on a secondary audio stream.

That National Association of Broadcasters, NCTA and The Weather Channel had all proposed granting them flexibility beyond the secondary audio channel to make the info accessible, but the FCC said no. "we believe that mandating the use of the secondary audio stream to provide an aural representation of visual emergency information is a better approach to provide consistency for the viewing audience, particularly given the overwhelming support in the record for this method," the commission said.

The FCC did not rule on whether to grant waivers to small cable systems that lack the equipment to pass through the emergency info. "Although we are sympathetic to the issues raised by the American Cable Association we do not believe that we have an adequate record upon which to address its proposals in the context of the instant proceeding," the commission said. "Commissioner Ajit Pai said he hoped the FCC would grant such requests.

"We appreciate the time that the FCC spent considering our concerns and request for relief, and understand the FCC’s interest in gathering more data to ensure that it is appropriately balancing the interests of the blind and visually impaired community with those of small cable operators," said ACA president Matt Polka. "Although cable operators do not need to comply with the new mandates for two years, ACA plans to start work on that waiver petition at once so that we can quickly eliminate the regulatory uncertainty that now exists regarding when and how these systems can comply with Congress’ goal of conveying emergency information in a manner accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired."

He also thanked Commissioner Pai for his support. 

The vote was 4-0. The chairman had already voted the item before he announced he was leaving the commission. Commissioner Robert McDowell, who is also leaving and looking for his next posting, did not participate in the vote.