A recent Washington Post article highlights a bill that was recently introduced in Congress suggesting that the FCC bring back their rules for audio descriptions of video programming – rules which were thrown out by the Courts several years ago as being beyond the scope of the Commission’s authority without explicit Congressional authorization.  But not only does this bill propose to give that missing Congressional approval to the FCC to re-introduce video description requirements for broadcast television, but it would authorize the FCC to introduce these rules, and closed-captioning requirements, on all video screens, including MP3 players, wireless devices and other video devices getting their programming through the Internet or other digital technologies.  With this bill, and various other proposals that have surfaced in recent months, it seems more and more likely that, as the Internet becomes even more important in the provision of broadcast-like programming in the future, the FCC may be called on by Congress to impose broadcast-like restrictions on that programming.

The full text of the recent bill, introduced by Congressman Markey, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, can be found here.  A summary of the bill is also available on Congressman Markey’s website.  The bill deals first with the accessibility of telephones and other communications devices, before setting out the provisions dealing with the captioning and video description requirements for broadcast and Internet video devices.  The bill first asks the FCC to study and report to Congress on the issues with captioning and video description on video devices, and then asks the FCC to adopt rules governing these matters, making video programming placed on the Internet that was either broadcast on a television stations or which is "comparable" to broadcast programming to be subject to these rules.  The idea is to make all TV-like programming subject to the rules, no matter what device it is viewed on.  Presumably, if adopted, the law would allow the FCC to make exemptions for certain types of programming (just as it currently allows exemptions from the current closed captioning requirements for small entities that have insufficient resources to caption a program).  The bill also requires that the FCC make sure that program guides and emergency information are available to those with hearing or visual difficulties, and that the navigation devices on video receivers can  be worked by those with disabilities.  So the FCC would have much to do to comply with this law, if adopted, and all within an 18 month period.


Continue Reading Closed Captions and Video Description – The First Step to FCC Regulation of On-Line Media?

The FCC has released the full text of its Order adopting enhanced disclosure requirements for broadcast television stations – requiring that they post their public files on their websites and that they quarterly file a new form, FCC Form 355, detailing their programming in minute detail, breaking it down by specific program categories, and certifying that the station has complied with a number of FCC programming rules.  The Commission also released the new form itself and, as detailed below, the form will require a significant effort for broadcasters to document their programming efforts – probably requiring dedicated employees just to gather the necessary information.  The degree of detail required is more substantial than that ever required of broadcasters – far more detailed than the information broadcasters were required to gather prior to the deregulation of the 1980s – though, for the time being, much (though not all) of the information is not tied to any specific programming obligations set by the FCC.

 Before getting to the specifics of the new requirements, the thoughts of the Commission in adopting this order should be considered.  The Commission’s decision focuses on its desire to increase the amount of citizen participation in the operation of television stations and the decisions that they make on programming matters.  While many broadcasters protested that the public rarely cared about the details of their operations, as evidenced by the fact that their public files were rarely if ever inspected, the Commission suggested that this was perhaps due to the difficulty the public had in seeing those files (the public actually had to go to the station to look at the file) and the lack of knowledge of the existence of the files (though broadcasters routinely broadcast notice of the public file’s existence during the processing of their license renewal applications, rarely producing any viewers visiting the station to view the file).  With respect to the new Form 355 detailing the station’s programming, the Commission rejected arguments that reporting of specific types of programming in excruciating detail imposes any First Amendment burden on stations, as the Commission claims that it has imposed no new substantive requirements.  Yet the Commission cites its desires that the public become more involved in the scrutinizing of the programming of television stations, which it states will be aided by the new form, and also emphasizes the importance that the Commission places on local service (an item detailed in Form 355).  At the same time, in its proposals detailed in its Localism proceeding (summarized here), the Commission is proposing rules requiring specific amounts of the very programming that is reported on Form 355, the very numbers that, in this proceeding, it claims have no significance.  Moreover, citizens will be encouraged by the Commission’s actions to scrutinize the new reports, and file complaints based on the perceived shortcomings of the broadcaster’s programming.  Broadcasters in turn will feel pressured to air programming that will head off these complaints.  So, implicitly, the Commission has created the First Amendment chilling effect that it claims to have avoided.


Continue Reading FCC Releases Rules for Enhanced TV Disclosure Requirements