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FCC issues new rules for audio, video descriptors

Accommodations for those with auditory and visual impairments were given a boost by the FCC this summer as the result of two separate actions taken by the agency. The first requires 50 hours per calendar quarter (roughly four hours per week) of descriptive prime time and/or children's programming.

The description of the video involves the insertion into a TV program of narrated descriptions describing elements of the action that are not otherwise reflected in the dialogue, such as the movement of a person in the scene. The description will typically be provided through the use of the secondary audio programming (SAP) channel, so that it is audible only on that channel when it is activated through a TV set or VCR with those capabilities. These 50 hours per calendar quarter should not have any serious impact on a station's current use of the SAP channel, on which many stations offer multilingual services for programs they carry.

Broadcasters affiliated with the four major networks, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in the top 25 television markets will be required to provide this service. Other stations that get programming, regardless of the market size, will be required to "pass through" any video description it receives from a programmer, provided the station is technically capable to do so. These same conditions will be applied to cable and satellite services as well.

In addition to these network offerings of description, the FCC has also mandated multi-video programming distributors, such as cable and satellite systems with 50,000 or more subscribers, provide video description of the same amount and type of programming on each of the top five non-broadcast networks that they carry.

The top 25 markets are those as determined by the Nielson-designated market areas, or DMA rankings. The multichannel purveyors' determination will be made by national prime time audiences' share.

These rules will apply to analog television only at this time. The FCC did say that it expects ultimately to require digital broadcasters to include video description, but said that it wouldn't consider that issue until there had been further ex-perience with both digital broadcasting and the new video descriptive services.

With the implementation of digital television, the FCC was required to update its rules to fulfill its obligations under the Act. In the Report and Order adopted by the FCC, it has incorporated sections of the industrial standard EIA-708-B, "Digital Television (DTV) Closed Captioning" into its rules.

The new standard provides instructions for the encoding, delivery and display of closed captioning information for digital television systems. The commission said that it would require manufacturers to include compliant DTV closed captioning decoder circuitry in DTV devices by July 1, 2002.

Devices covered under the rules include DTV sets with integrated widescreen displays measuring at least 7.8 inches vertically, DTV sets withconventional displays measuring at least 13 inches vertically, and stand-alone DTV tuners, whether or not they are marketed with display screens.

The new standard of closed captioning provides for more options and features than are available in the current system. Viewers will be allowed to choose and alter the color, size and font of the captioning and to choose between multiple streams of captioning, such as "easy reader" or alternate language captioning.