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Stations Must Bear Cost Of Service For Blind

A bill set for passage by Congress this fall would require network O&Os and their affiliates to supply video descriptions for the blind. While a handful of stations are already doing this, most are not. Adding the necessary equipment could cost stations an estimated $10,000-$25,000.

The CBS O&Os and some of the network’s affiliates don’t have to worry about a likely congressional mandate forcing them to offer programming with video descriptions for the blind. They’re already doing it.

For the past several years, CBS has been attaching an extra audio channel with descriptions to a handful of primetime shows — currently, the lineup includes CSI: Las Vegas, NCIS, NCIS: LA and Criminal Minds — and the stations have been broadcasting them without much trouble.

“CBS offered video descriptions before the digital transition and we … passed it through on the SAP channel for years,’’ says Jerry Michel, VP and director of technology at CBS’s Tampa affiliate, WTSP.

“Doing it in the digital world is just a natural transition,” he says. “As long as stations have the latest ATSC encoder that gives them the ability to do alternate audio channels, they should be able to do video descriptions.”

But while some stations in the CBS family are into video descriptions, most commercial stations aren’t. So, they do need to worry about the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, legislation mandating descriptions and heading for final passage this fall.

The Senate bill (S.3304) would require the Big Four broadcast networks and their affiliates in the top 25 DMAs to provide four hours per week of primetime and children’s programming with descriptions. The numbers rise over time, to seven hours after four years and the top 60 DMAs after six years.

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After 10 years, the FCC would be authorized to extend video description duties to up to 10 additional DMAs each year until all 210 markets are covered. (The tougher House bill would require all stations to offer descriptions after six years.)

The legislation also require local TV broadcasters to make emergency crawls audible to the blind in the top 60 DMAs, but would otherwise exempt live or near-live programming.

The nation’s top five cable TV networks would also have to provide the service.

Video descriptions enhance programming for the nation’s 25 million blind and visually impaired by describing characters and action between the dialog in programming. Just like foreign-language soundtracks, descriptions constitute their own audio channel.

Advocates for the blind have been fighting for descriptions for years and they thought they had won the battle in 2000 when the FCC adopted rules similar to the pending legislation.

But the parties that would have had to carry the cost of the service — broadcasters and program producers — challenged the FCC’s authority to mandate it. A federal appeals court agreed and threw out the rules in 2002.

With the exception of CBS, commercial broadcasters have mostly failed to provide descriptions on a voluntary basis.

At Fox, only The Simpsons is now described and passed through to stations. Fox says that its O&Os broadcast the descriptions, but couldn’t say how many of its affiliates do.

Neither ABC nor NBC is providing the service and both declined to comment for this story. CBS also declined.

By far, most description occurs in noncommercial broadcasting. PBS now offers 15 hours a week, including children’s programs and long-running series such as Nova, American Experience, Nature and Masterpiece Theatre.

The driving force behind the video description legislation is the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology, which includes the American Foundation for the Blind, the American Council of the Blind and the American Association of People with Disabilities, among others.

“Video description for television programs — the narration of visual elements during pauses in dialogue — is essential in this day and age,” said Eric Bridges of the American Council of the Blind after the Senate passed its version of the bill.

And, more important, is the requirement for audio on emergency alerts, he said. “Unbelievably, up until now, all the FCC has required is an audible tone on television to alert people who are blind or visually impaired that they should go seek out emergency information somewhere else.”

The description service imposes some significant costs on program producers and broadcasters. Larry Goldberg, director of the Media Access Group at noncommercial WGBH Boston, which produces description audio channels for CBS and some of the PBS program producers, says they cost between $2,000 and $4,000 per hour.

The other major cost is that of equipping TV stations so that they can receive the description channel from their networks and broadcast it along with the regular audio channel.

Although some stations already have what they need. Others may have to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 to pass through the network service, according to sources who have analyzed the situation. The price tag could go much higher for stations that have to make infrastructure upgrades, the sources add.

“I would think at least 40% of the local broadcasters in the top 100 markets would have to purchase some level of hardware,” says Damon Semprebon, VP of business development at International Datacasting.

“They may have to buy a whole new video encoder or some other new device that will inject an extra audio program into the service,” he says.

“There are an awful lot of people that bought new equipment in 2009 in preparation for the analog turn off. They have brand new equipment, but they didn’t buy for . They bought for exactly what they needed and no more.”

International Datacasting sells a multichannel digital encoder that would do the job, the Tiernan HE4000, for around $20,000, says Semprebon.

Another option is the Harris NetVX encoder, which is being used by WTSP.

“Because we have multiple audio channels available in each encoder, this allows us to support this feature in existing systems without any additional cost. It becomes a configuration question only,” says David Brass, business development manager for the Video Networking Group at Harris Broadcast Communications.

WGBH’s Goldberg says stations must be sure they have the most up-to-date digital encoding equipment and “they need to make sure the computers have the right software to properly tag the programs. “If CBS delivers a program with descriptions in them and the local station doesn’t properly indicate there are descriptions, they can be lost.”

Goldberg says there is an upside for stations that are forced to gear up for descriptions. “This as an opportunity to take advantage of the multiple audio services embodied in the DTV specifications, and get up to speed to deliver lots of new services — Spanish language, video descriptions and other languages. You can even carry other radio services in those extra audio channels.”

Yet another headache for broadcast engineers is the legislation’s provision calling for stations to deliver audio for emergency crawls.

“It is something we would have to figure out,” says WTSP’s Michel. “I don’t know of anything available.”

WGBH is working on one possible solution, an automatic text-to-speech device. “We actually developed technology that would take the output of a television station’s character generator and fed it to a speech synthesizer,” he says.

Larry Oaks, VP of technology, Meredith Local Media Group, says none of the group’s stations has the needed technology for descriptions right now. “But we are in the process of implementing it so if it [the bill] does get passed we’ll be ready.

“We need to update both the hardware and broadcast network systems to support descriptions. The upgrade will be very simple at some Meredith stations, but much more complicated at others.”


Comments (20)

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Michael Gano says:

September 1, 2010 at 8:54 am

Ridiculous, Its Television, with the operative root being “vision”. This is a financial burden to an already cash-strapped business. What’s next? Will the FCC ask radio broadcasters to add a visual captioning service for the deaf? The government is out of control and shouldn’t just sit back and take this like the bunch of lemmings.

    Ellen Samrock says:

    September 1, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I thought the CALM Act was bad, with lawmakers pretending to be broadcast engineers but this latest piece of proposed legislation is, as you say, ridiculous. I don’t suppose there is anything in this bill that mentions how government is going to help TV stations pay for the equipment and infrastructure to support this service, is there? I didn’t think so. More governmental heavy-handedness on a beleaguered industry.

Mike Brown says:

September 1, 2010 at 9:07 am

Dede’s comment is typical of short-sighted broadcasters who fail to understand that they are licensed to operate IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST!!! The nominal cost to add this service — vital to a segment of the PUBLIC — is clearly something any TV station can afford.

Remember — you have been GIVEN an extremely valuable chuck of spectrum — and then your business is protected by numerous regulations (many such as retrans/must carry and the prohibition of importation of out-of-market signals by satellite are relics of a day-gone-by).

How cheap can you be to complain about this minor investment?

    Michael Gano says:

    September 1, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    You obviously never ran a TV station. This is simply more than just buying an ATSC encoder. The DV audio must be added to programming at a cost per episode. I would imagine that a great many blind TV listeners have adjusted their entertainment habits to include many TV shows, not to mention radio. Does this piece of legislation really help the blind? I think not.

Jim Goodmon says:

September 1, 2010 at 9:32 am

No problem, most stations in below top 10 markets will just lay off another 3 or 4 people to bear the ongoing cost. They already have trouble competing with the dozens of other providers that don’t have the restrictions that broadcasters do.

    alicia farmer says:

    September 1, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Cynic – 3 or 4 people are going to be laid off if the station buys a $20,000 digital encoder? This is a capital expense and will cost about $3,300 a year on the books for six years. Give me a break!

Matthew Castonguay says:

September 1, 2010 at 9:38 am

In a related development, federal government regulations are in the works to require radio broadcasters to augment their audio content with video.

    Warren Harmon says:

    September 1, 2010 at 11:16 am

    ROLF, GREAT shot!

Jim Goodmon says:

September 1, 2010 at 10:38 am

By the time it is over the stations will have to provide descriptions for locally produced shows like they do now for captioning at a cost of between $40K and $120K per year. Passthrough is just the beginning as it was for captioning.

Brian Walshe says:

September 1, 2010 at 10:57 am

The other side of the coin is whether there are easy ways for consumers to RECEIVE the descriptions.

Can most DTV converter boxes so this? Is a blind person likely to buy the big HDTV with all the bells and whistles, just to be able to get the descriptions?

Warren Harmon says:

September 1, 2010 at 11:14 am

More liberal spending, such a waste, it started in the seventies with the blue paint and ramps! We spend too much money and resource on our defects. When are we going to say “ENOUGH ALREADY”.

Hope Yen & Calvin Woodward says:

September 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

Remember TVNewsCheck Harry Jessell’s article titled “Genachowski Hires Broadcast TV Hitman”, Dec. 2009 where he pointed out FCC’s Stuart Benjamin’s previous remarks about the spectrum issue, “I think it is likely that broadcasting will shrivel, and thus leave the spectrum, in 20 years. But that is a long time to wait.” So rather than just sit around and watch broadcasting die, Benjamin says the FCC should begin factoring into all its thinking on new broadcast regulations what impact they will have on the viability of broadcasting. More to the point, the FCC should favor regulations that have the extra benefit of burdening broadcasters with extra costs and speeding their demise. “Every dollar of additional costs for broadcasters is one less dollar of profit, and thus reduces the attractiveness of over-the-air broadcasting as a business model,” he says. “Some regulations that would be undesirable standing on their own will be desirable once we factor in the degree to which they will hasten the demise of over-the-air broadcasting.” Doesn’t this ruling, in light of previous comments make perfect sense?

    Stephen Bernard & David K. Randall says:

    September 1, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    abso-freakin-lutely. You hit the nail on the head right here.

Lana Boone says:

September 1, 2010 at 11:42 am

just like the government decided railroads were passe the same fate awaits us if we do not start warning viewers of our challenges with the government and cable who both are crushing us at every turn. multicasting – where does it say they can strip our signal and take only part of our stream? where is the fcc on this issue? the consumer is being left out. oh no it is more important a blind person can watch tv????? how stupid….. we have too many with nothing to do in DC…. lay them off…

J Smith says:

September 1, 2010 at 11:46 am

Are DBS and cable going to be required to do this as well? What about “paid” programming? Can you imagine what the infomercial people will do with their visual descriptions (the GGW verbiage would be priceless!)? Can this data be transferred to mobile devices i.e. phones? On the other hand, why shouldn’t these requirements (closed captioning & now this visual thing) be restricted to the PUBLIC BROADCASTING STATIONS? PBS needs the extra viewers and we’re already paying for them out of our tax dollars let them offer something no one else does…isn’t that the purpose of PBS?

David Praga says:

September 1, 2010 at 12:15 pm

This is a perfect example of politicians who wish to get re-elected pandering to a special interest group. Who would say no to a blind person? Of course the answer is: no one. I work for a TV station in a small market. It is this kind of preposterous regulation that will cripple this small company even further. Thank god I will be out of this business before my small market is required to comply. What’s next Congress?

Kathryn Miller says:

September 1, 2010 at 1:15 pm

And awful lot of heat on this, but very little light. Yes, many to most television sets will render this additional audio service. I watched part of a “Criminal Minds” episode with SAP on earlier this year, and I was very impressed with the visual description — it made the story sound like a novel. Somehow, KFMB-TV San Diego has the necessary equipment (encoder, PSIP generator, plant infrastructure) to pass on visual descriptions. This is not new at all; Larry Goldberg told me some years ago that he was working to get congressional action on this. Having recently lost a friend from high school to diabetes — he was a big fan of big dish satellite and terrestrial tv and couldn’t see the last 6 years of his life, I have some sensitivity to the issue of blind people enjoying tv. And, I’ve even used the empty argument about video accompanying radio — but you can send text via radio. The cost to add this is actually minimal, if you can pass it through your plant (what, you still have an analog plant?) and you bought an encoder that could encode two independent audio streams. One can buy a new HD encoder, with two audio services, for $18k or less. If your PSIP generator can’t handle multiple audio tracks, well, I can provide you with one that is fully compliant with all applicable standards and doesn’t place any artificial bounds on what you can do with your transport stream.

Isn’t this the time of the year when cap ex budgets are being drafted? Whether this bill passes in present form or not, isn’t it about time to begin to exploit the advantages of digital transmission — advantages to you and your station, and advantages to your viewers?

    Stephen Bernard & David K. Randall says:

    September 1, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    The cost may be minimal right now.
    I am in a medium-sized market and I have to turn away local/independent productions all the time because they simply cannot afford the closed-captioning. They want to sell sponsorships, but can’t until they draw an aud. Can’t broadcast without the captions.

    No one wants to exclude any viewers, obviously. Hell I will go to someone’s house and act out the programs for them if they have a people meter. But costs, even incremental ones, add up to a big burden eventually.

    Kathryn Miller says:

    September 1, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    It’s not all that hard to create captions, but inserting them into content isn’t a trivial thing. The MAGpie freeware from NCAM at WGBH can help with authoring captions. However, I think you might be overstating what the captioning rules require. Independent producers can be exempted or have the captioning rules waived — they only apply to companies that have $3MM per year in revenues, Unless I’ve missed something, you aren’t required in your market to create captons for independent productions, but you have to pass on any captions that are in content. This law would have a quite different impact if all productions aired in all markets were required to have visual descriptions. I’m generally against government mandates, but it is best if we look at ourselves as being “temporarily able-bodied.” .

TERRI PECK says:

September 7, 2010 at 4:14 pm

It’s easy to forget that cable and TV households of blind people are already paying for TV but the blind person is not getting the same value as everyone with sight. And, as a sighted person, I’ve found any available video description to be very helpful in helping me figure out what’s going on sometimes! Especially those moody atmosphere shows….


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