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Unanimous Approval Expected for Audio Description FNPRM

A draft further NPRM on expanding audio description requirements to all broadcast markets within 10 years is expected to be unanimously approved at Thursday’s FCC commissioners’ meeting with few changes, said agency and industry officials. The proposed expansion is the most the FCC can do for audio description within the bounds of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, said Clark Rachfal, American Council of the Blind director-advocacy and governmental affairs, urging Congress to pass legislation to require audio description for all video. The 10-year phase-in in the NPRM means blind and visually impaired consumers in smaller TV market state capitals such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or Juneau, Alaska, may not have audio-described broadcasts until 2035, he said. “These are not insignificant places within the U.S.,” said Rachfal.

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The draft FNPRM seeks comment on requiring audio description in an additional 10 designated market areas each year until all DMAs are covered. The requirements already apply to top-four affiliated stations and some MVPDs in the top 100 of the 210 DMAs in the U.S. The proposed expansion would add 10 DMAs each year starting in 2025, requiring it for all DMAs by Jan. 1, 2035. The phase-in is similar to what the FCC did for the 2020 audio description expansion. “The proposed expansion would help ensure that a greater number of individuals who are blind or visually impaired can be connected, informed, and entertained by television programming,” said the draft FNPRM.

The draft also seeks comment on the costs of the additional expansion, which the FCC found to be reasonable the last time around. “Specifically, have the costs of adding audio description to television programming, which held steady between 2017 and 2020, remained steady today?” says the draft FNPRM. The FNPRM also seeks comment on provisions for broadcasters to seek waivers based on economic burdens.

The draft hasn’t generated much ex parte traffic since being announced, and FCC and industry officials said it isn’t seen as controversial. NAB raised concerns about the burden for smaller broadcasters during the previous expansion. NAB “is still reviewing the further notice and will work with our members to assess the viability and impact of the proposed rules,” a spokesperson emailed. “We take our commitment to serve all communities very seriously and look forward to working with the Commission and consumer groups to ensure we provide the widest access possible to our stations.”

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and the FCC should be commended for “maximizing” the audio description the CVAA can require, but the pace and scope isn’t enough, said Rachfal. Congressional passage of the proposed Communications, Video, and Technology Accessibility Act (CVTA) would require all video -- broadcast, cable, streaming and on social media -- to feature audio description. “In the last 12 years, we have reached the limits of that law as the programming and communications landscapes have evolved and become more digital,” said the American Foundation for the Blind on its website. The FCC needs the legislation to keep up with emerging technologies, Rosenworcel said for the bill's release in 2022. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey D-Mass., hasn't been reintroduced in the current Congress but Markey plans to do so, an aide told us.

The amount of audio description the FCC currently requires “doesn’t amount to 1%” of the video put out by broadcasters and MVPDs, said Audio Description Associates President Joel Snyder, who founded the ACB’s Audio Description Project. The current rules require covered broadcasters in the top 100 DMAs to provide 50 hours of audio-described programming per calendar quarter during prime time or children’s television programming, along with an additional 37.5 hours of audio-described programming per quarter at any time between 6 a.m. and midnight. The FNPRM proposes expanding the DMAs covered but not the amount of programming that is described. The “most frustrating” aspect of the audio description shortage is that broadcasters are capable of providing more, since the same technology is used for emergency alerting, Rachfal said. The FNPRM makes a similar point: The station costs will be “minimized” because covered broadcasters are already “required to have the equipment and infrastructure needed to deliver a secondary audio stream for purposes of the emergency information requirements,” said the agency.