Access Isn't Just The Law, It's Also A Good Idea

There is no rule, regulation, or statute requiring any U.S. pizzeria to offer cheese-free as well as cheese pizza. Nevertheless, many pizzerias, including at least one nationwide chain, do so. Broadcasters should take note.

As of the end of 2001, almost five years after the FCC began the transition to digital television, 361,828 decoders capable of receiving the signalsÑwhether as set-top boxes or integrated into DTV setsÑhad been sold into the retail chain. How many actually made it into homes is anyone's guess.

As of August of 2001, Nielsen estimated there were 105.5 million U.S. television households. So, if every DTV receiver to leave a factory made it into a different home, by the end of last year the total American DTV audience represented at most about a third of a rating point. A third of a rating point is not a lot. A third of U.S. television households, on the other hand, is quite an audience. That's where the cheeseless pizza comes in.

Restaurants always run a risk in deciding what should be on their menus. Will it draw enough patrons to ensure a profit? Pizza is a pretty safe bet; it's more of a national dish in America than in Italy. There will always be times when people prefer, say, hamburgers to pizza. But then there's another factor.

Suppose that, in a family of four, one person has a dairy allergy or intolerance. Where will the family eat? At a hamburger joint, they could order three cheeseburgers and one hamburger. At a typical, cheese-only pizzeria, only three of the family members could eat. But at John's Pizza in New York, or California Pizza Kitchen nationwide, some of the family could get cheese and some not. That's business being refused at cheese-only pizzerias.

Gerry Field, of the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at WGBH, told participants at the Hollywood Production Alliance (HPA) Technology Retreat in Palm Springs in February that some 24 million Americans are deaf or hearing-impaired and 12 million are blind or have vision impairments not correctable with eyeglasses. You're probably familiar with the closed-captioning system developed to help the hearing-impaired enjoy television.

Since mid-1993, all TV sets 13 inches or larger sold in the U.S. have had to have a closed-caption decoder. Since 2000, a substantial amount of TV programming has had to be closed-captioned; in July of this year even DTV receivers will have to include closed-caption decoders. And the DTV standard has a provision for an audio channel for the hearing-impaired, one that can be mixed in such a way as to provide maximum intelligibility.

Curiously, closed captions have become popular outside the hearing-impaired community. They're great for watching TV next to a sleeping spouse, and they're useful in bars, too. Most important for programmers, they draw households with hearing-impaired members.

NCAM's Tom Wlodkowski followed Field at the HPA Technology Retreat. He made an extraordinary statementÑthat the blind tend to tune in at least as much television as the sighted. He should knowÑhe's blind.

It shouldn't seem so strange. WCBS, an AM radio station, carries the audio portion of 60 Minutes each Sunday night; it holds up pretty well without video, but sometimes a description of the pictures would help.

The stereo television system adopted by the FCC in 1984 allows for just such descriptions to be carried on the secondary-audio-program (SAP) channel. And the channel might not be good for much else. WETA, for example, discontinued transmissions of anything other than picture descriptions when it got complaints from consumers whose TVs were stuck in a SAP-listening mode.

This month, the first programming with mandatory description for the visually impaired was due to appear. But the rule is being challenged, most recently by the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

Offering accessible TV is the right thing to do. And, unless the rules change, it's also required. But, if there's one hearing- or vision-impaired person in each, the best reason might be 36 million households