TV News Organizations Concerned About Potential FCC Video Description Rules

By Alex Weprin 

Exclusive: The National Association of Broadcasters and Fox News Channel are among those arguing that TV news should be exempt from video description rules the Federal Communications Commission is looking to establish, according to FCC filings obtained by TVNewser.

As part of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, the FCC can establish a timetable and rules for video descriptions of programming.

In a nutshell, TV programming would not only be required to have closed captioning for the deaf, but would have to provide a description of what is happening on-screen for the blind. The DTV transition makes this technology easier to implement.

The problem with that rule as it relates to TV news is best explained by the National Association of Broadcasters in its FCC filing:

“Unlike closed captioning, which is intended to repeat words spoken as precisely as possible, video description inherently carries a subjective element, and accordingly should not be required to add a non-journalist describer’s words into an editorial product.”

The rulemaking also requires the “top-five ranked” non-broadcast networks to video describe certain programming. This part in particular caught the attention of Fox News Channel, which admits that while it is not certain that it would be considered a “top-five” network, decided to play it safe and filed its case for exemption anyway:

Fox News is not ranked among the top five non-broadcast networks based on an average of the national audience share during prime time for the period October 2009 to September 2010… Out of an abundance of caution, News Corp. hereby advises the Commission that it believes that Fox News would qualify for exclusion from the rules even if it were deemed to be one of the top five most highly rated networks.

It is safe to say that executives at CNN and MSNBC–both of which program documentaries with regularity–may be concerned about the proposed rules. One cable news producer who works on long-form content told TVNewser that while they want their programming to be accessible to everyone, they shared the concerns that the NAB had.

While live programming would obviously be challenging technically–and is in fact exempt from the proposed rules–the NAB argues that pre-taped programming like documentaries or TV newsmagazines  such as “60 Minutes” or “Dateline,” should also be exempt:

Including non-journalists’ subjective video descriptions in news reporting is inappropriate for several reasons. First, it would be an unwarranted intrusion into newsroom editorial decision-making. Second, it could open up broadcasters to potential defamation and false light liability – liability that may vary state-by-state. For example, broadcast of an interview might require highly subjective audio descriptions of the visual picture of an interviewee’s facial reactions or movements while the interviewee considers how to answer allegations of wrongdoing. Such descriptions could affect the audience’s perception of the subject, including his or her guilt or innocence as to those allegations.

The full FCC filings from News Corporation and the NAB are below.


Nab Fcc Filing