Retirement Community Reaching ‘Epic Silliness’ in Captioning Battle

In what could be a test of the “undue burden” concept on programmers facing closed-captioning requirements, a fast-growing Florida retirement community is resisting calls to caption its in-house cable news loop.

The Villages, a development in a town of the same name, asked the FCC in March for an exemption to captioning rules, saying its Village News Network already loses $1.4 million annually and would go out of business if forced to provide the service.

Nonsense, say some residents, advocates for the deaf and at least one local columnist. They say the place is rolling in money—the community’s developer owns many of the local businesses in the area—and that elderly residents are entitled to the captioning under the Americans with Disabilities Act, just as they would be entitled to a wheelchair ramp into the community center.

VNN consists of a 15-minute loop about local activities and events. It’s updated daily and runs on a channel leased from the local Comcast cable system. The Villages says in FCC filings it also provides a text crawl on the VNN channel with local information, as well as an additional all-text channel.

One local advocacy group estimates that as many as 15 percent of Village residents are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Many programmers—mostly small, specialty or religious—have petitioned the FCC for exemptions to the rules in recent months. Most of these channels make the case that they operate on a shoestring budget to provide unique services and might end operations if forced to closed-caption.

But The Villages is not poor or small. Its lawyer said in an FCC filing that it is the largest single-site residential real estate development in the country, spanning 26,000 acres with 68,000 residents, scheduled to grow to 105,000 by 2012.

Its enterprise appears to have assets. Big Builder magazine said in April that The Villages sold 3,955 units in the previous year for more than $800 million, making it the fastest-growing master-planned community in the country, according to an FCC filing from a critic of The Villages.

Orlando Sentinel Columnist Lauren Ritchie scoffed at the claim of an undue burden in a May 30 column, “Closed Caption Battle Nearing Epic Silliness.” She cited the developer’s three jets and $137,000 in annual fees for dedicated customs agents so the owners can fly directly to The Villages without clearing customs elsewhere. She also said Villages developer Gary Morse contributed $565,000 to Republican Party organizations and candidates over the last seven years, much of it in travel on the private jets.

Then there’s the owner’s 147-foot yacht, the Cracker Bay.

She also hammered The Villages for its procedural gripes such as its complaint that those opposing The Village’s exemption submitted comments to the FCC single-spaced, instead of double-spaced as FCC rules require. The Villages also asserted that its opponents lacked standing to complain and failed to show injury.

The Villages attorney Erick D. Langenbrunner did not respond to a request for comment from TV Technology.

“Can it get more absurd? Oh, yes,” Ritchie wrote. “Will The Villages spend enough on lawyers to pay for a year of closed captioning before this is over? Count on it.”