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FCC fines three Washington D.C. stations for captioning failures

The FCC has proposed fines for three Washington D.C. stations for failing to follow closed captioning rules during a major storm that hit the area last year.

The commission said WJLA-TV, WTTG-TV and WRC-TV failed to provide either sufficient closed captioning data or other visual information during the on-air weather warnings of thunderstorms and tornadoes on May 25, 2004.

WRC-TV, owned by NBC Telemundo, and WTTG-TV, owned by FOX, were each fined $16,000. WJLA-TV, owned by ABC, was fined $8,000. Under the rules, the fines can be appealed.

The FCC said the failure to follow captioning rules created confusion about the severity and location of the emergency for hearing impaired viewers.

NBC raised several defenses in its response to the FCC inquiry. First, the network contended that the rule does not specify a “time limit by which the information must be conveyed through visually accessible means.” Second, it argued that the FCC left “further interpretation of emergency information, and how or when any requisite presentation is to occur, to the good faith discretion of the licensee.” And, finally, the network contended that following the rule “could delay or deter any news coverage.” The FCC said the network was wrong on all counts.

The commission noted that FOX provided evidence that its failure to provide closed captioning was caused by the unavailability of its contract closed captioning service. The FCC responded that the rule mandates only that FOX provide visual access to emergency information by some means, not that it provide such visual access by closed captioning. Therefore, even without the assistance of its contract captioner, the commission said the network could have complied with the rule by utilizing crawls, graphics, or some other method of visual presentation.

In 2000, the FCC approved rules that require TV stations and cable operators to provide visual versions of emergency information communicated by voice during a broadcast. The form of the visuals can be either closed captioning or on-screen graphics that can be read easily by all viewers.

This is the second set of fines issued under the rule. Earlier this year, the commission proposed fines against San Diego TV stations for failure to provide visual warnings during southern California’s 2003 wildfire outbreak.

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