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Emergency warnings: What the FCC requires from video distributors

The FCC has issued its annual public notice reminding video distributors — television stations, cable systems and satellite providers, to name a few — of their obligation to make all emergency information accessible to people with vision and hearing disabilities. No excuses for less than full compliance will be accepted.

Section 79.2 of the FCC’s rules defines emergency information as “information that is about a current emergency and is intended to further the protection of life, health, safety, and property, by providing details regarding the emergency and how to respond to it.” Emergencies covered by the rule include such natural disasters as tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires, as well as man-made disasters such as discharges of toxic substances and industrial explosions. The commission has emphasized that this rule allows for no exceptions, even in cases of quickly breaking news about emergency conditions. 

Importantly, the rule reaches not only scripted presentations, but ad-lib statements made in the course of live news coverage. In 2005, several TV stations received large fines because the stations’ on-the-spot coverage of natural disasters failed to make the programming accessible to vision- and hearing-impaired persons. For example, one station was fined $20,000 for airing, without captioning, an interview with a representative of the American Lung Association who told viewers they should stay indoors, run their air conditioners and avoid exercise.

Visually impaired

What is required for the visually impaired? For the visually impaired, emergency information provided in the video portion of a regularly scheduled newscast or a newscast that interrupts regular programming must be accompanied by an aural description of the video presentation. For example, on-screen images or graphics (e.g., a list of available emergency shelters) must be accompanied by a voiceover describing the video action or reading the text of the on-screen material.

Emergency-related screen crawls that are not part of a regular or unscheduled newscast must be accompanied by an aural tone to alert visually impaired people to tune to another information source, such as the radio. The commission recommends frequent repetition of that tone, at least as often as the information in the crawl is repeated.


To reach people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Section 79.2 requires either closed captioning or other methods of providing the audio portion of the emergency information visually. Any such presentation may not, however, block the closed captioning. Conversely, any closed captioning is not allowed to block another form of visual presentation, such as a crawl.

Network-affiliated TV stations in the top-25 markets have a significantly greater burden in this area. Those stations are required to arrange for closed-captioning services. The commission affords these stations time for the captioning personnel to travel to the station, but in the meantime any emergency information being broadcast must be made accessible to the hearing-impaired in some manner, such as by showing a whiteboard with appropriate text.

In its public notice, the FCC also gives advice about how to file a complaint against video providers who do not follow the rules. Since 2010, all video distributors have been required to file their contact information with the FCC so that any audience member experiencing a problem with closed captioning can reach out to the station directly.


  • On Dec. 1, 2012, TV and Class A TV stations in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi must begin their pre-filing renewal announcements in anticipation of filing their renewal applications on Feb. 1, 2013.
  • On or before Dec. 1, 2012, noncommercial TV stations in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont must file their biennial ownership reports.
  • On or before Dec. 1, 2012, television stations, Class A TV, LPTV stations and TV translators in Alabama and Georgia must file their license renewal applications.
  • On Dec. 1, 2012, television and Class A TV stations in the following locations must post their 2012 EEO reports on the FCC’s new public file web page and on their own websites: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont.

Harry C. Martin is a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, PLC.