Court Overturns FCC's Video Description Rule

On Nov. 8, a federal appeals court overturned an FCC rule that required broadcasters to provide video description services to the visually impaired. The rule took effect last spring.

Against an outcry from media access advocacy groups, the court agreed with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which challenged the FCC rule by arguing that the commission could not lawfully issue the mandate.

In 1995, Congress had authorized studies on closed captioning and video description and, although the FCC was asked to report and prescribe regulations for closed captioning, the video description report did not mandate any rule implementation. In its ruling, the court noted this, saying, "there is a marked difference between Congress' treatment of closed captioning and video description."

When the commission passed a video description rule in 2000, current FCC Chairman Michael Powell dissented, saying it overextended the reach of the FCC's statutory provisions. When asked about the ruling, FCC spokesman David Fiske said, "The decision is under review and we're deciding where to go from there."

Video description technology lets users access a secondary audio channel for a description of the action - all TVs sold in the U.S. since the early 1990s are equipped with this capability. Broadcasters noted that in some markets, the second channel is already used for Spanish and other foreign-language audio. The rules require network-affiliated broadcasters in the top 25 television markets to use secondary channels for approximately four hours a week, in primetime or children's programming.