Now that Congress has mandated that stations provide audio descriptions for blind and sight-impaired viewers, broadcasters should stop fighting it. I get it. Nobody likes to be told what to do by the government. But this is an instance where broadcasters are being told to do something that they ought to have been doing anyway. So accept it and, in the great spirit and tradition of broadcasting, make the most of it.
Let’s face it, the way broadcasters handled this whole business of video descriptions has not been pretty. They have been blind to how bad they have looked.
From the beginning more than a decade ago, they have opposed the government’s efforts to get them to air a few hours a week of described programming for the blind and the visually impaired. I remember when the tuxedoed leaders of the industry had to slink by a group of advocates for the blind on their way into their annual Service to America summit in Washington. Oh, the irony.
Ask any of the 20 million visually impaired individuals about how much descriptions can enhanced her enjoyment of TV. With the descriptions, squeezed in between the dialog, they can follow all of the action, know what the characters and setting look like and get all the jokes with visual elements. It’s a wonderful service, and costs relatively little to provide.
When the FCC first mandated described programming in 2000, the broadcasters persuaded a court that the FCC had overstepped its authority. That was a victory, I suppose. But, if it was, only the lawyers were cheering.
In 2010, Congress stepped in and codified the old FCC rules, effectively ending the long debate on the matter. The FCC’s job is to implement and enforce the law.
Come July 1, Big Four O&Os and affiliates in the top 25 markets have to air four hours a week of described primetime or children’s programming. For the most part, that entails making sure they can pass through the described programming from the networks, which, according to our story Wednesday, are dutifully lining up that programming.
It’s a good mix of dramas and sitcoms, by the way. ABC says it will be describing six sitcoms this summer. That’s particularly good news for the blind. Described sitcoms are a rarity with Fox’s The Simpsons being one of the few exceptions to the rule.
Large cable systems and satellite operators also have to telecast four hours a week from the top five rated cable networks.
Now that the feds have spoken, and broadcasters have no choice but to air an abundance of described programming, they should convert the chore to an opportunity — to bank some goodwill, build audience and maybe recoup some of the costs of providing the service.
Start by making a big deal out of July 1. Run some stories on your own air about the new described programming and pitch the story to the papers. Go out and speak to local community groups that work with the blind and get them to endorse the service and talk it up. Get some credit not only for the described shows you will run under the new regime, but also for those you have run over the years just for the heck of it.
You don’t have to mention the government mandate. Just let them think you are upping the number of described shows because great services like this are just something that broadcasters naturally do.
But if you do feel guilty for trumpeting a service that you had to be coerced into providing — and you should — go beyond what’s required. Pressure your network for more than four hours. Why not six, eight or 10? Describing a $2 million primetime show adds only a few thousand dollars to the final cost.
And if you happen to be outside the top 25 markets, make the hardware investment to receive and pass through the descriptions if you haven’t already done so and if it doesn’t put too much of a strain on your budget. The top 25 markets cover only half the country’s TV homes and, presumably, only half the visually impaired people.
Follow up with some PSAs to alert blind viewers to the service and show them how to tune into the audio channel with the descriptions — directly off the air or through the cable or satellite system. Finding the channel is challenging, according to my blind friends who have struggled with it. Often, cable CSRs have no idea what they are talking about. That, one would hope, will change after July 1.
Since it’s no longer paying lawyers to fight the description obligation, the NAB might be able to fund the PSAs. Perhaps the networks could persuade some of their talent to appear in them — pro bono publica, of course.
ABC stations have been broadcasting Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin, part of the network’s three-hour weekly children’s educational programming block, with descriptions since last December. And Litton Entertainment, which produces the block, says that all three hours will be described by July 1.
To promote the shows and descriptions, Litton is producing a PSA with Jeff Corwin. The 30-second spot will appear within the block and Litton will also make it available to ABC stations so that they can use it at other times. Let’s hope they do.
Can you make money off of descriptions? Maybe. The blind will tend to watch described programming and tend to stick with networks that offer the most of it, although I can’t say the increased viewership will be enough to make the Nielsen needle move.
But how about sales promotions? Find some advertisers that want to be associated with good works in the community — hospitals and doctors come to mind — and get them to “sponsor” the descriptions.
I’ve noticed that opening graphic for The Daily Show on Comedy Central now carries the line: “HD brought to you by Kit Kat” with an image of the candy bar. Why not a brief slide with voiceover before every described program: “Video descriptions for the blind brought to you by [fill in the blank]?” Such an announcement will let blind viewers (excuse the oxymoron) know that there is a show coming up that they can fully enjoy.
You might also be able to find a sponsor for a Web page with an up-to-date schedule of described programming and information on how to access it. Yes, the blind can surf the Web using software that reads every word on the page. Just make sure that you put the link to the description page in a prominent place high on the home page.
Look, I get it. Nobody likes to be told what to do by the government. But this is an instance where broadcasters are being told to do something that they ought to have been doing anyway. So accept it and, in the great spirit and tradition of broadcasting, make the most of it.