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.
Stations Must Bear Cost Of Service For Blind
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.
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.”