President to Sign Video Description Bill

WASHINGTON: A bill that will reinstate mandatory video description is scheduled for a presidential signing ceremony today. The 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act brings back FCC rules requiring a verbal play-by-play of programming for the blind.

Boston PBS member station WGBH-TV developed descriptive video service in the 1990s. The service is carried in the Second Audio Program channel as an option, much the way closed captioning can be turned on and off.

The bill on the president’s desk requires the FCC to issue a rulemaking to reinstate its video description regulations, which first went into effect in 2000 amid objections from Hollywood and broadcasters. A federal court struck them down in 2002.

The video description rules required the top four network-affiliated TV stations in the top 25 TV markets to provide at least 50 hours per quarter of prime time and/or children’s programming with video description. Cable and satellite operators with at least 50,000 subscribers were subject to the same requirement. All other TV stations and cable operations were required to pass through the service if they had the technical capability to do so.

The Video Accessibility Act directs the FCC to update its list of the top 25 TV markets, and the top five national nonbroadcast networks with at least 50 hours per quarter of prime time programming. Other provisions in the bill cover cell phone communications and Internet use.

“When signed into law, this legislation will give individuals with vision or hearing loss improved access to television programming, smart phones, the Internet, menus on DVD players, program guides on cable TV, and more,” the American Foundation for the Blind said in a press release.

The bill requires wireless providers to make Wi-Fi phones, Web browsers, text messaging and e-mail on smart phones fully accessible to people with vision and/or hearing impairment. It covers emergency broadcast information and allocates $10 million a year for developing assistive technologies.

“Once enacted, this legislation will ensure that the 25 million Americans with vision loss, and the millions more with other disabilities, can fully take part in the digital era,” said Paul Schroeder, vice president of the AFB. “It will improve job opportunities, education opportunities, and more.”

President Barack Obama is set to sign the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act today in the East Room of the White House at 2 p.m. Eastern. He’ll be joined by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who introduced the legislation in June 2009. -- Deborah D. McAdams