Commercial television broadcast stations that are affiliated with one of the top four commercial television broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) and are located in the top 60 television markets are required to provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of video-described prime time or children’s programming, and to provide an additional 37.5 hours

Last week was a busy one for the FCC, with decisions or proposals on a number of issues that can affect broadcasters, including changes to the EAS rules and proposals for the expansion of video description – the requirements that TV stations carry a certain amount of programming that is accompanied by audio descriptions to explain the visual action to TV station viewers who are blind or otherwise visually impaired. Today, we’ll look at the proposals for expanding the required amount of “video description” required by TV stations.

Under current FCC rules, television stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and which are located in the Top 60 US TV markets must carry a minimum of 50 hours of video programming per quarter that is described by accompanying audio descriptions of the on-air visual action. These descriptions are usually broadcast on the station’s secondary audio programming (“SAP”) channel, often used for foreign language translations of programming. These SAP channels are also used for the required audio transmission of video alert warnings that occur outside of news programs (see our article about that requirement for emergency information, like video crawls during entertainment programming, to be translated into audio and broadcast on these SAP channels, here and here). Qualifying programming must either be in prime time or programming addressed to children. The rules also require that TV stations in all markets pass through network programming with such audio descriptions if those stations are technically able to do so. The FCC notes that, given the requirement for emergency information on SAP channels, all TV stations should now have that ability to pass through network programming with audio description of the video programming. The FCC now proposes to further expand the obligations of TV broadcasters to do audio descriptions of video programming that they air.
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UPDATE:  On March 23rd, the FCC granted a ten-day extension of the filing deadline.  Comments are now due April 28th, and Reply Comments are due by May 27th.

The FCC’s recent item proposing the adoption of video description rules was published in the Federal Register today setting the deadline for Comments in

Yesterday, the FCC initiated a rule making proceeding to reinstate its prior video description rules with certain modifications, as required by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (Act). The proposed rules would require large market broadcast affiliates of the top four national networks and most cable operators and DBS providers to provide programming with audio narrated descriptions of a television program’s key visual elements beginning as soon as first quarter 2012.  Davis Wright Tremaine previously summarized the Act in our earlier advisory available here.

The Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) takes the first step toward restoring the video description regulations that the FCC previously adopted in 2000, but which were subsequently vacated by the U.S.  Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Now with explicit Congressional authorization, the FCC seeks to restore the video description rules by Oct. 8, 2011, as required by the Act. The FCC proposes a quick implementation, with the video description and pass-through rules beginning Jan. 1, 2012. The most significant elements of the reinstated video description rules are: 

  • Broadcast affiliates of the top four national networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—located in the top 25 television markets must provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of prime time and/or children’s programming with video descriptions.
  • The top five national nonbroadcast networks must provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of prime time and/or children’s programming with video descriptions. The proposed rule would be applied to multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), including cable operators and DBS providers with 50,000 or more subscribers, and presumably then be applied to the top five networks through affiliation agreements.
  • “Live” and “near live” programming is exempt from the rules.
  • In order to count toward the requirement, the programming must not have been aired previously with video descriptions, on that particular broadcast station or MVPD channel, more than once.
  • All broadcast stations, regardless of market size or affiliation, and all MVPDs, regardless of the number of subscribers they serve, must “pass through” video description when such descriptions are provided and when the station or program distributor has the technical capability to do so.

In addition to proposing to reinstate the rules previously adopted by the FCC, the item asks many practical implementation questions about refreshing market rankings, applicability of the rules to low power television, and what constitutes the “technical capability” to pass through video descriptions. In particular, the FCC seeks to refresh the list of the top 25 DMAs, as well as update the top five national nonbroadcast networks subject to the rule. In determining the top five nonbroadcast networks, the FCC proposes to exclude from the top five any nonbroadcast network that does not provide, on average, at least 50 hours per quarter of prime time non-exempt programming, i.e., programming that is not live or near-live. The NPRM specifically seeks comment from any network that believes it should be excluded from the top five covered networks because it does not offer enough pre-recorded prime time or children’s programming.


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After a series of FCC meetings where the only mention of broadcasters was in connection with taking TV spectrum for wireless broadband, the tentative agenda for the next FCC meeting, to be held on March 3, 2011, is full of broadcast issues – issues that could have broadcasters wishing that they were ignored once more.  The biggest issue is the initiation of a proceeding to re-examine the retransmission consent process by which television broadcasters negotiate with cable and satellite companies for payment for the carriage of their signals.  But also on the agenda are proceedings to look at rural radio services and whether the Commission should limit the ability of broadcasters to move stations from rural to urban areas, and the initiation of a proceeding to require that television programmers provide audio descriptions of the action taking place on the video portion of their programs to aid those who are visually impaired.

The retransmission consent proceeding is one which arises after several well-publicized cases where television stations and multichannel video program distributors (like cable and satellite television providers) have had disputes about the amount to be paid to the television broadcaster for the carriage of their signal by the MVPD.  In a few cases, this has resulted in the television station being pulled from the MVPD for some period of time until the dispute can be resolved.  Some MVPDs have argued that there should be more oversight over the process by which television stations can force the MVPD to pull the station’s signal until the retransmission negotiation is completed.  MVPDs argue that viewers, who can get the signal over the air as it is made available by the TV station for free, should not be held hostage to the negotiations and should not suffer when the station is pulled from the MVPD to further the TV station’s negotiation posture.  Broadcasters, on the other hand, argue that the system is working, that the number of stations who have been pulled from an MVPD is few, and that the MVPD should pay for the valuable television signal, just as it pays for other programming that it carries from cable networks.  The FCC is expected to ask whether some reform of the process, and perhaps some government oversight or mandatory mediation, should be required.


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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.


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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.


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