FCC’s Efforts to Expand Video Description May Spark Debate on Statutory Authority

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The FCC’s video description rules require covered broadcasters and MVPDs to provide audio-narration of the key visual elements of a program during pauses in the dialogue so as to make it more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Under the current rules (which Congress in 2010 directed the FCC to reinstate after a court struck them down in 2000), broadcast stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC that are located in the top 60 television markets are required to provide 50 hours of programming with video description per calendar quarter. The top five non-broadcast networks on Pay-TV systems serving 50,000 or more subscribers (currently USA, TNT, TBS, History, and Disney Channel, as of July 1, 2015) are also subject to this requirement.

In addition to directing the FCC to reinstate its video description rules in the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA), Congress gave the FCC authority to adopt additional video description rules if the benefits of doing so would outweigh the costs. At today’s Open Meeting, the FCC tentatively concluded that the substantial benefits of adopting additional video description requirements would outweigh the costs of the proposed requirements, and therefore adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking recommending an update to and expansion of its video description rules.

The FCC’s additional proposed requirements include increasing the required amount of video-described programming on each covered network from 50 hours per calendar quarter to 87.5 hours, and expanding the number of networks subject to the rules from four broadcast and five non-broadcast networks to five broadcast and ten non-broadcast networks.

The NPRM will also seek comment on a “no-backsliding rule”, which would keep covered networks subject to the requirements even if they fall below the top-five (broadcast) or top-ten (non-broadcast) ranking.

Dissenting in part, Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly voiced concern that the FCC’s proposals exceed the Commission’s statutory authority, which had been the downfall of the earlier rules. In particular, both commissioners warned that the proposals far exceed the 75% increase of the total hour requirement permitted under the CVAA:  Commissioner Pai’s “conservative estimate” was that the proposed additional requirements would increase the total hours requirement by 192% (before taking into account the no-backsliding rule).  With respect to the no-backsliding rule, Commissioner Pai described the proposal as the “Hotel California” approach to regulation, and accused the FCC of Orwellian speak and “reinvent[ing] math”—where the “top five broadcast networks can mean more than five networks.”

The text of the NPRM and comment deadlines have yet to be released, but it’s already sounding like the FCC will be in for a lively debate.

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