Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

CRTC complaint 52181

This is a petition for the CRTC to immediately enforce its own regulations to ensure that cable services and other broadcast distribution undertakings (BDUs) cease to impede the transmission in Canada of audio-description signals originating in the U.S. The issue is simultaneous substitution of U.S. programs with audio description by Canadian signals without audio description. We went through this same denial of accessibility with captioning in 1981, and despite years of warning that U.S. programming on commercial networks would begin to be aired with descriptions, Canadian broadcasters and BDUs are still blocking the description signals.


The Broadcast Distribution Regulations state (at §30[5][b]) that no affected BDU may substitute a signal if “the programming service to be deleted contains subsidiary signals designed to inform or entertain and the programming service to be substituted does not contain similar signals.” Captioning (as transmitted in Line 21 of the vertical blanking interval) and audio description (as transmitted on second audio program) are indisputably “subsidiary signals designed to inform or entertain.” An uncaptioned and/or undescribed show cannot be substituted for one that is captioned and/or described. The relevant regulation makes it a contravention to substitute undescribed Canadian feeds over described American feeds. That is exactly what’s happening.

This is not a theoretical issue. Here is documentation of an actual infraction: On April 7, 2002, at 20:00 Eastern time, Rogers Cable in Toronto substituted an undescribed Global feed of The Simpsons in place of a described feed from Fox. Channels 3 and 28 ended up with the same undescribed feed (in fact, SAP on both channels was completely silent). I know that episode carried descriptions not merely because Fox announced that The Simpsons would become a described show but by virtue of the fact that WUTV began its feed a minute before Global did; I heard and videotaped the described feed before it was negligently destroyed by Rogers and/or Global and replaced by an undescribed feed. The CBS movie The Deep End of the Ocean simulcast that same night at 2100 hours on CITY-TV in Toronto also presented no descriptions on SAP (merely main audio); I have no similar tape of initial described minutes from that show.

The Commission and all BDUs will be perfectly aware that April 1, 2002 was the first day of the first calendar quarter in which the Federal Communications Commission requires certain broadcasters and cablecasters to transmit described programming (typically 50 hours per calendar quarter). CBS, Fox, and other U.S. broadcasters are already transmitting described programming. Based on my testing, it is evident that BDUs in Canada are illegally blocking the description signal on SAP as it originates from the U.S. source.

I can only assume that BDUs do not consider this issue important enough to risk offending broadcasters (many BDUs are themselves broadcasters) by running, for example, the U.S. described feed of The Simpsons on the Fox station and the Canadian undescribed feed on the Global station. Or BDUs are simply negligent and do not understand their obligations. The reasons BDUs are in noncompliance are irrelevant. The FCC regulations date back to July 21, 2000, giving Canadian BDUs and broadcasters more than 19 months of leadtime to comply with simultaneous-substitution regulations that have been in effect in Canada for over two decades. The Commission has itself fallen down on the job by failing to proactively remind BDUs of their responsibilities and assure that audio-description signals make it through the Canadian broadcast infrastructure intact.

The only broadcasters and BDUs not affected by this regulation are those that cannot broadcast or pass through SAP. Neither of the cases cited above (The Simpsons and The Deep End of the Ocean) falls into this category.


The remedy I seek is the immediate issuance of an emergency order reminding all broadcasters and BDUs able to broadcast or pass through SAP that described U.S. programs must be carried intact on their systems even if it requires declining to substitute the Canadian signal. Advertising and infrastructure losses consequent to complying with the regulation are irrelevant; the simultaneous-substitution regulations have been on the books for decades and are not open to reinterpretation. If broadcasters or BDUs are concerned about losing money because their signals can no longer be simultaneously substituted, one assumes this will provide an incentive to fix the technical problem that causes Canadian feeds to go out undescribed in the first place. The Commission has no basis to cease to enforce its own regulations because a for-profit broadcaster in Canada will lose money or for any other irrelevant reason.

Additionally, the CRTC must commit to monitoring compliance for a reasonable period, such as the first calendar quarter affected by the U.S. regulations. You can conveniently do this sitting at home in Hull watching your own cable feeds. Infractions must be noted and offending parties disciplined in accordance with regulation. Fines would appear to be in order; the failure to pass through audio description amounts to unequal treatment on the basis of disability, and contraventions must bear a meaningful sting if the practice is to be stopped.

Immediate action required

It will be pointed out that the Commission is the only entity on earth that attempts to make a distinction between “audio description” and “descriptive video.” The sole generic term is in fact “audio description,” though the FCC has adopted the term “video description.” Even the Commission’s meaningless distinction is nonetheless covered under the statute; whether you call the signals audio description, descriptive video, or video description, they are all subsidiary signals designed to inform or entertain and must be passed through intact.

Canadian broadcasters and BDUs are actively destroying the single biggest influx of described television programming in history. To date, the Commission has allowed it to happen for a week. The Commission must not dally even one more day, let alone the three-week period it usually allots for investigating BDU complaints. The CRTC must urgently reassert the obligations of broadcasters and BDUs and must, moreover, begin to investigate and take action against affected entities who continue to contravene regulations.

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Simultaneous substitution of U.S. described programming → CRTC complaint 52181

Originally filed 2002.04.07 ¶ Updated 2002.07.26

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