Joe Clark: Accessibility ¶ Design ¶ Writing

Comments on FCC Docket Nº 11-43

This response pertains to the FCC’s 2011 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Nº 11-43 on reinstatement of requirements for what the FCC calls video description (known generically as audio description).

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Apart from “live or near-live programming,” no programming types or categories or broadcasters should be exempt. This in fact means that prerecorded programming on networks that air large quantities of live programming (sports networks are an easy example) would be covered by the regulation.

The principle here is that blind people, by statute, deserve and can expect equal access to programming – admittedly to only a small fraction of it, but access nonetheless. It is no one’s place, and certainly not the FCC’s, to dictate which program genres blind people may not enjoy with audio description. Sighted people can watch whatever they want; within the quantity limits of the legislation, blind people deserve the same right.

(It should go without saying that limiting the number of hours of audio description is, on any constitutional or legal basis, a complete non-starter, but that is what the legislation requires at present. A separate proceeding will be necessary to enforce full access in terms of quantity of described programming; this section deals with genre of programming.)

Near-live programming

Broadcasters should be explicitly barred from pretending that a prerecorded program that is received close to airtime is a “near-live” program, hence exempt from any requirement to describe it. It may or may not be practicable to produce an audio-description track for such a program, though at least two description providers I know of are capable of same-day turnaround. The practicality of describing a late-arriving show that is indisputably prerecorded is an issue different from designating such a show as “near-live,” which it isn’t.

This exemption needs to be rewritten to close that loophole.

Quality standards

The issue of audio-description quality is a minefield into which the FCC has stumbled like a drunken sailor. The Notice’s ¶G(29) is scattershot and prejudges a number of issues.

If these regulations don’t prevent NBC from making a mockery of them, they will have failed

NBC, always contemptuous of its disabled audience, uses the worst and cheapest captioning available (that of CaptionMax, which “won” the initial contract via reverse auction). During the earlier period of mandatory audio description, NBC was notorious for doing two things:

  1. Describing almost nothing but kids’ shows. While technically permissible, that was never the intent of the regulation.

  2. Hiring tape houses and other incompetent nonexperts to sit there yammering extemporaneously into a microphone. NBC passed off these recordings as actual video description, which they weren’t.

If the FCC’s new regs aren’t tough enough to stop NBC, and cheapskates like it, from taking the least expensive route possible and piling up audio-description hours where barely anybody is watching, the regs will have failed.

Under no circumstances whatsoever should “the industry” develop standards

If we’re defining “the industry” as broadcasters and others covered by the regulation, let me be the first to tell you that broadcasters are the least capable of writing standards. As the FCC has tacitly acknowledged, broadcasters don’t want to do audio description in the first place, which explains why barely any do. Broadcasting reps took the FCC to court to overturn the previous description requirement and won. Broadcasters didn’t get into this business to help cripples (they’re here to serve advertisers) and will do the absolute minimum most of the time. And they’ll seethe with resentment while doing it.

Allowing broadcasters to write standards for disabled people makes as much sense as allowing tobacco manufacturers to write standards for cancer treatment. Broadcasters are a problem it took legislation to solve.

And at any rate, has anyone, even paid lobbyists for the broadcasters, attested that they know the first thing about the topic? Do they have any interest whatsoever in taking on a project like this? I can tell you the rest of us have no interest in letting them do so.

Posted: 2011.04.28

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