New FCC rules for descriptive programming

After five years of study, the FCC has adopted rules requiring all television stations to accommodate the needs of the visually-impaired audience.

Stations which report emergency information must ensure that information such as an emergency telephone number is accessible to people with visual disabilities. Also, stations which provide emergency information via a "screen crawl" or "scroll" now must accompany the information with an audible tone. Many newscasts already comply with these new rules by the nature of their reporting. However, these procedures are now a federal requirement.

Beginning in the second quarter of 2001, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliated stations in the top 25 markets will be required to broadcast video description during a minimum of 50 hours of programming per quarter. The most frequently used technology is a "closed" video description, similar in nature to closed captioning, that transmits on an additional audio channel accessible to viewers who own multiple audio channel television sets. It provides an audible description of events and visual elements during natural pauses in the regular programming audio.

All stations (not only those in the top 25 markets) must comply with new FCC video description rules if they are affiliated with any television network that broadcasts network programming containing video descriptions, provided their broadcasting and transmission equipment can process the information.

DTV closed captioning rules To maintain service to hearing-impaired viewers during the transition from analog to digital television, the Commission has amended its rules to require manufacturers to build closed-caption compatible DTV sets by July 1, 2002. All programming prepared or formatted for DTV broadcast after July 1, 2002, must be closed-captioned no later than Jan. 1, 2006.

The FCC's order updates rules adopted in 1991 governing closed captioning circuitry on analog television sets. Under the order, DTV must adhere also to the eight-year phase-in schedule for closed-captioned programming outlined in a 1997 order for analog receivers. The amended rules also require that 100 percent of non-exempt new programming have closed captioning by the Jan. 1, 2006, deadline.

The order adopts additional rules for digital receivers that do not apply to analog closed-captioned programming, including requiring that decoders support different caption sizes, fonts and colors. Cable providers and other multichannel video programming distributors must transmit captions in a format that will be understandable to this decoder circuitry.

The additional requirements sparked dissent from Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, who complained that imposing new rules for closed-captioning features exceeds Commission authority under the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 (TDCA). The TDCA requires that television receivers contain circuitry to decode and display closed captioning and requires the Commission to ensure that closed captioning service remains available to consumers as new technology is developed. However, the TDCA does not address whether the Commission may mandate additional features for closed-captioning services, and the new decoder rules exceed the industry's recommended practices for decoder manufacturers.

These rules apply to digital television receivers with picture screens measuring at least 13 inches diagonally and receivers measuring 7.8 inches or larger vertically. Converter boxes used to display digital programming on analog receivers must continue to deliver the analog caption information to the attached analog receiver.

New registration number system In July the Commission began implementing the Commission Registration System (CORES) to assign registrants a 10-digit FCC registration number (FRN) for use on all applications or payments sent to the Commission. The FRN eventually will be used in all Commission financial, authorization of service and enforcement activities. Right now, use of the FRN is voluntary.

Stations which filed auxiliary applications in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau's Universal Licensing System prior to June 22, 2000, will receive an FRN automatically by mail. Otherwise it will be necessary to use the CORES registration system. Instructions for registration were included on page 2 of the FCC's FY 2000 Mass Media Regulatory Fees instruction packet or can be obtained from the FCC's website (click on the CORES link).