New captioning requirements

On Oct. 8, the president signed into law a far-reaching bill that will result in new mandates for broadcasters, cable systems and program networks to implement video captioning and video descriptions. The Senate adopted the bill in late September. While the bill is based on previous FCC authority, certain provisions are expanded and now require Internet capability.

The new legislation basically reinstates the regulations contained in earlier FCC rules, which the commission adopted in 2000. Those provisions were challenged by both program producers and broadcasters. An appeals court ruling agreed with the opposition, and the law was tossed in 2002. These new rules become effective Oct. 8, 2011.

This new bill gives the FCC the authority to implement a wide range of rules designed to improve access to entertainment for up to 30 million Americans. According to an August release from the Coalition of Organizations of Accessible Technology (COAT), the regulations require:

Video description:

• After one year, the FCC would restore its requirement for four hours per week of video description on the top four TV networks and top five cable channels in the top 25 DMAs.

• After four years, the FCC may require video descriptions to be increased to seven hours per week on above nine TV channels.

• After six years, the FCC may increase the amount of required video descriptions to nine hours for stations in the top 60 DMAs.

• After 10 years, the FCC can expand video description requirements to 10 new markets annually, until all DMAs have been covered.

• Emergency information must be provided to blind or low-vision audiences.

Closed captioning:

• All captioned TV programs must be captioned when delivered over the Internet.

Captioning decoders and video description capability:

• Devices designed to receive or play back video programming over any screen size must be capable of displaying closed captioning, delivering available video descriptions and making emergency information accessible. This provision includes smart phones and Mobile Portable Handheld (MPH) video devices.

• Devices designed to record video must enable the rendering or pass through of captions, video description and emergency information.

Remote controls:

• Any recording device must have controls that enable their use by blind and visually challenged individuals.

• Accessibility features must be available via a button, key or icon.

Video program guides and menus (EPGs):

• Cable and STBs' on-screen text menus must be “audibly accessible.”

• Accessibility features must be available via a button, key or icon.

Other provisions:

Certain portions of the legislation will be implemented if “achievable” through a reasonable effort or expense as defined by the FCC. For instance, while the law says smart phones should provide Internet accessibility, there is no provision for paying for, or providing free, such access. Whether or not that means the owner would have to pay for a carrier data plan is not defined. Also, if a manufacturer’s cost is $100 to implement an audible EPG and the box was designed to sell for only $25, then presumably that feature might not be required on that particular device. It could be required on more expensive models.

The law establishes an Emergency Access Advisory Committee. This committee will develop recommendations to the FCC for new rules for “Internet-enabled emergency call centers.”

A separate Video Programming and Emergency Access Advisory Committee will create recommendations covering captioning, video description and emergency information, user interfaces and video programming guides and menus. The committee will forward those recommendations to the FCC for consideration and implementation.

Many of these rules sound straightforward. But consider, how would a cable company provide a voice-based EPG? Broadcasters transmitting multiple channels along with a PSIP-enabled EPG may also have to provide an audio version of the program guide.

Bottom line:

A wealth of new requirements are coming, and many of them are yet unclear. Fortunately, they will be phased in over several years, so there is time to adapt and adopt.

Watch for more details on these new regulations from Broadcast Engineering. We’ll be sure you have the latest information on implementation procedures, timetables and rules.

Helpful links:

Coalition of Organizations of Accessible Technology (COAT)

COAT summary of Senate Bill S.3304

Closed Captioning & Subtitling Software & Services

Captioned example videos

House Bill H.R. 3101 (Search for "Twenty-First Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act of 2010.")