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FCC Ups Handicapped Provisions

Washington, D.C. — The Federal Communications Commission added two new rules for television broadcasters and set manufacturers aimed at better serving sight-impaired and hearing-impaired consumers.

First, the FCC added “video description” requirements for broadcasters, to ensure an audible description of action on the screen is provided on a Second Audio Program (SAP) portion of a broadcast to serve visually impaired consumers. The rule applies to analog broadcast signals but carries the intention that it be extended to digital television (DTV) programming as well.

Then, the FCC formally stated that manufacturers must make future DTV receivers capable of receiving closed captioning (CC) for the hearing disabled.

The SAP reception capability is offered in many sets today and typically has been used to transmit a Spanish-language track to accompany a television show. The FCC ruling on video description, however, applies only to broadcasters and does not mandate SAP tuning in all sets.

The FCC defended the action by issuing statistics revealing some 12 million consumers have visual disabilities that cannot be corrected with glasses, and another 14 percent of the population age 75 and older have problems with their vision.

Under the timetable for implementation, broadcasters affiliated with the four major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) in the top 25 markets will commence visual description services in the second quarter of 2002. At that time, they will be required to transmit visual descriptors for a minimum of 50 hours per quarter, or approximately four hours per week, on prime-time and children’s programs.

The ruling also applies to multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), including cable and satellite operators with more than 50,000 subscribers. MVPDs are required to offer video description for the top five non-broadcast networks they carry, in addition to passing through the signal transmitted by any broadcast station or program provider they carry.

In the second ruling, the FCC stipulated that DTV receivers will be required to display closed captioning, which is already mandated for analog televisions, within two years.

The rule includes sections of the consumer electronics industry’s EIA-708B voluntary standard for the encoding, delivery and display of closed-captioning information for DTV systems.

Manufacturers will be required to include the capability in all DTV receivers July 1, 2002. The rule covers DTV sets with widescreen displays at least 7.8 inches vertically, DTV sets with conventional 4:3 displays at least 13 inches vertically, and stand-alone DTV tuners.

Added to prior rules is the requirement that viewers be enabled to select and alter the color, size and font of the CC text, and to choose between multiple streams of onscreen text content, including options for easy-reader wording or foreign languages.

The ruling also required MVPDs to transmit captions in a format that will be receivable by DTV receivers.