The FCC yesterday granted extensions requested by the National Association of Broadcasters and by the American Cable Association of the deadlines for implementation of obligations to convert emergency information conveyed in text (usually in on-screen crawls) on television broadcasts into audio to be broadcast on a TV station’s SAP channel (the second audio programming channel usually used for second-language program audio, e.g. a Spanish audio version of English-language programming). This “Audible Crawl Rule” was set to become effective yesterday. The extension of the basic requirement for TV broadcasters to convert the text of crawls containing emergency announcements to speech has been postponed six months, until November 30. Certain related obligations (to provide audio descriptions of non-textual information like weather radar maps, and to include school closing information among the emergency information provided under the Audio Crawl Rule) have been extended further into the future.

The NAB’s request for extension (about which we wrote here) was based on three different issues. The first was the NAB’s finding that the equipment to generate speech from textual crawls was not yet widely available in the marketplace, so most TV stations simply did not have the time to install the equipment to meet the FCC’s requirement. Groups representing the visually-impaired community expressed concern with the delays, but nevertheless agreed to the six month extension granted by the FCC yesterday.The NAB’s second concern was with the fact that there was no automated system to convert graphical information, like weather maps, into audio that could be broadcast on the SAP channel. Short of having someone sitting in the station at all times to provide that conversion live just in case an emergency arose, stations would be faced with the prospect of simply not providing that visual information if it could lead to a fine for not having the audio description. It would seemingly defeat the purpose of wide dissemination of emergency information to enforce a rule with which stations could not comply. It should be noted that the programming to which these rules apply is non-news programming (e.g. it applies only to crawls or visual emergency information that is provided during entertainment programs – news programs, including breaking news cut ins, have their own separate obligations to provide information to those that are hearing or visually impaired, see for instance our article here). Thus, the FCC gave broadcasters 18 months to work with representatives of the visually-impaired community to determine how to comply with this obligation. The FCC noted that, as most of the information conveyed by maps and other graphics is also usually conveyed in textual crawls, the Audible Crawl rule should convey the gist of most emergency situations to the blind.

The final issue was the concern that the FCC had included school closing information in the list of emergency information which needed to be converted into audio under the Audible Crawl Rule. As the rules required that this audio information be repeated at least twice, and the list of school closings is likely to be very long in any TV station’s service area, broadcasters worried that there simply would not be enough time to provide this information on an audio channel. The FCC decided to reconsider this aspect of the rule, actually launching an examination of that rule last week when it issued new rules for captioning on video devices other than TV sets (see the FCC’s public notice of its Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, here). Thus, the inclusion of school closing information under the Audible Crawl Rule was postponed indefinitely.

The FCC also granted certain cable systems alternative means to comply with the rules, particularly analog systems that can’t pass through SAP channels to their customers. It also granted them more time to develop the means to implement these alternatives.

So broadcasters have a little breathing room to implement these rules. But TV broadcasters should be working immediately on testing and installing new systems that will ensure their compliance in 6 months, when the Audible Crawl Rule takes effect.