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The Audio Description Project

ACB Reply Comments

Before the
Federal Communications Commission
Washington, D.C. 20554

In the Matter of MB Docket No.11-43

Video Description:  Implementation of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010

Reply Comments of the American Council of the Blind


These reply comments are provided on behalf of The American Council of the Blind (ACB), a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of blind and visually impaired people throughout the United States. Based in the Washington D.C. area, ACB has tens of thousands of members from across this country who belong to more than 70 state and special interest affiliates.  The nation’s leading blindness organization, ACB represents members from all walks of life who display interests in a variety of activities including business, education, the arts, to name a few. Its special interest groups are comprised of, among others, teachers, government employees, attorneys, students, information technologists, and artists.

ACB and its affiliates conduct a large number of advocacy, social, and cultural activities. Central to these are many activities such as collaboration with the government, K-12 and higher education, the private sector, and international entities to improve opportunities for all blind and visually impaired people. Recent examples of such collaboration include addressing concerns such as full access to education for students, full access to the work environment for blind employees, access to entertainment and educational content such as visually displayed information at sports facilities and information contained in videos as well as full access to the increasing array of advanced communications options in a multitude of settings.

 In 2008, ACB established the Audio Description Project (ADP) to boost levels of description activity and disseminate information on audio description work throughout the United States and worldwide. ACB is committed to the development of audio description in a wide range of formats, including content intended for broadcast via television and other media.

 The most current demographic information available reveals that more than 25 million Americans (about 1 out of every 15 people) report experiencing significant vision loss, i.e., individuals who have trouble seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses, as well as individuals who are blind. /1/

Of this population, at least 6.5 million individuals are more severely visually impaired (Packer and Kirchner, 1997). Survey data of State Special Education staff found that over 93,000 children served through special education (ages 0 to 21) in 1998 were visually impaired or blind (American Foundation for the Blind, 2000). Data collected by the American Printing House for the Blind indicates there were 55,200 legally blind children in 1999. Additional data collected by the U.S. Bureau of the Census related to visual impairments of discrete groups suggest that when compared to the number of African Americans in the general population, African Americans are over represented among the population of persons who have a visual impairment.

Perhaps the most important need addressed by audio description for video content is the ability to bring children and adults who are blind or have low vision into the mainstream of society.  The inability of anyone, adult or child, to participate fully in popular culture—which has a unique power to bind us together—effectively alienates individuals who are blind or visually impaired from his/her community.

Importantly, not all of a network's description content should be from children's programming; efforts should consider popularity of programs as well. It is also important that networks publicize program selections with description in their printed and online guides and with commercial vendors providing television listings like Zap2it or TV Guide.

As such, description provides the keys to our culture—to the extent that description helps people who are blind or visually impaired to be more familiar with media (television and movies), museums, theater, and other everyday events, thus allowing the description user to be more engaged and engaging individuals. This makes it possible for the user of audio description to be more socially integrated into society. The addition of description to a soundtrack is likely to increase the size of the audience of those who are blind or visually impaired. Description enhances the viewing experience not only for those who need the service, but also for those who view content with the blind or  visually impaired person.

There is no legitimate reason why a person with a disability must also be culturally disadvantaged. The creator of any work to be publicly accessible must consider how his/her work is enhanced by universal access—the use of captions and audio description. An architect who designs a building may not view the installation of ramps or lifts as part of his/her vision. And yet how inappropriate would it be for the museum housed in that building to ask that visitors who use wheelchairs to “bring your own ramp” if you want to venture inside!

For all these reasons, ACB is pleased to submit these reply comments in response to the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) by the Federal Communications Commission which establishes regulations to implement audio description on video content intended for children and for prime-time viewing. As the recently enacted Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (the “Communications and Video Accessibility Act” or “CVAA”), provides FCC the authority to reinstate rules for described content, it is ACB’s intention to ensure that the final rules reflect the current market conditions and look forward to future times-- be flexible enough to carry description for television into the future, and ensure that people who are blind or visually impaired have the information they need through description to understand and take full advantage of the content provided. ACB’s full comments appear elsewhere as a part of this inquiry; this document focuses on responses to the questions and concerns raised by various commenters.

Technical concerns regarding digital transmissions

Commenters such as AT&T Services and DIRECTV indicate that the Commission should maintain the rule that would exempt MVPDs if their technologies were being used for “another purpose related to the programming that would conflict with providing the video description.” In their arguments, the commenters appear to conflate programming and technical issues. We believe that the “other program-related service” exception was designed for program content considerations and was not designed so that MVPDs could use it as a potential technical restriction.

Without providing too many specific details regarding costs for upgrades, MVPDs have outlined bandwidth as a major factor for having significant difficulty in delivering audio description as a separate, independent channel. In particular,  AT&T argues that, if the Commission did not make an “other program-related service” exemption, if would be ultimately forced to ship millions of digital boxes capable of managing the required audio description. We cannot agree with AT&T that this will be the case. Even if new digital equipment is required, ACB may support the idea that the equipment be distributed to the company’s blind and visually impaired customers if appropriate steps are taken to advertise. More over, arguments for what “may” technically occur are insufficient to maintain a program restriction.

Other commenters such as  the Association of Public Broadcasters have asked that the deadline for stations for passing through audio description be moved to 2013 as little more than half of public television stations do not have the technical capacity to pass through audio description. If the FCC is unable to change the implementation date, the commenters argue, it should provide a blanket exemption for public television networks. ACB recognizes the contributions made by various public television networks in being early adopters of audio described television. Moreover ACB can sympathize with the Association about difficulties in obtaining funding for building out their network. We find these reasons to be insufficient for either moving the implementation deadline to a year after the proposed date or providing a blanket exemption. As the Association points out, nearly half of the television stations are capable of passing through description. There is no reason why these stations cannot pass on description in the time that technical build up occurs. Rather than granting a blanket exemption, we recommend that the Association seek a more positive approach.

On January 1, 2012, stations should be ready to broadcast description not try to broadcast description. A period of 60 days prior to the January 1, 2012 date of testing pass-through capacity of stations will allow stations like ABC and NBC, with little experience with description and will need some coordinated opportunities, to receive and then pass-through the description signal. This testing should be two-way involving broadcasters and the audience segment wishing to receive the signal.

In addition to seeking implementation date changes, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) asks the FCC to only apply audio description pass through rules to stations that are technically capable of doing so. We are quite surprised at this suggestion as it not only appears to violate the spirit of CVAA but also the letter of the law. Suggesting that stations only capable of passing through audio description do so at the implementation date and the rest of the stations not is akin to implying that only stations  currently capable of passing through audio description do so. No future progress would occur as  stations would have no incentive to do so. We strongly oppose such an action by the FCC.

Other than the distinct consideration given to stations that do not have the technical capacity because of undue burden, there should be no other reason as to why stations, cable networks, satellite networks, or other delivery networks are unable to pass through described content. Technical infeasibility should be considered on a case by case basis. ACB strongly urges the FCC to consider pass-through as it relates to content delivered via internet. So long as the content is described, there should be no reason why it cannot be made available through the network’s site or through a partner’s site. Broadcast and non-broadcast networks should be required to carry audio description for content in any digital form, whether it is delivered through the station network or via other delivery methods.

MVPDs, video providers, and flexibility

Commenters have expressed that, due to inherent challenges in creating audio described content for video that they do not own, the implementation deadlines should be kept flexible until they can be assured that their carriage agreements provide for the delivery of such content. ACB recognizes the challenges in obtaining copyright permissions and producing audio description for programs. ACB further recognizes that, in some cases, MVPDs may have to revert to carriage agreements in order to obtain audio described content from video providers. However this sole possibility should not be used as an understanding to delay the implementation of video description. If needed during a complaint, MVPDs will have the opportunity to provide evidence that they were unable to obtain audio described content from their top 5 providers. We are certainly aware of several providers who automatically pass on audio description when available. It may simply be the case that MVPDs will need to make the request of their video providers.

In addition, MVPDs argue that the FCC should provide sufficient flexibility that they have time to not only reevaluate carriage agreements but that there is time to implement such agreement after redetermination of top five non-broadcast networks. In ACB’s original comments, we argued that the Commission should make it clear that once a network is deemed to be one that must comply with audio description rules, it cannot lose that status even if a top five redetermination finds that a non-broadcast network is no longer in the top five position. Further, once MVPDs have begun carrying audio described content from a provider, they should not be permitted to stopped as the technical capabilities and the infrastructure for creating audio description will already exist.

For these reasons, the Commission should firmly establish a "no backsliding" rule to assure that once a DMA has been subject to the top 25 or top 60 rule, broadcasters in that area will continue to provide described programs as they have done so during the previous period. Stations in DMAs that slip below the top 25 or top 60 markets should not have a problem maintaining their minimum requirements as they would have been providing the service for an extended period, have been equipped to do so, and have maintained its affiliate relationship with one of the four covered networks. In addition, MVPDs and top five non-broadcasting networks should be subject to the same rules.

Live and near-live programming

A.      “live programming”

While the CVAA does provide exemptions for providing descriptions for content that is being broadcast live, audio content for live programming is not an unknown phenomenon. For instance, the live broadcast of the historic 2009 inauguration after President Obama was elected provided audio description. The process for such description differs; it is, however, certainly doable. As such, the contention by ESPN that it should be given a blanket exemption based on the fact that it broadcasts live and near-live programming lacks merit. Even if the necessities of the live programming exemption were to be counted, there certainly is prime programming that ESPN produces that does not fall under the given rules and should not be exempted.

As the CVAA considers live programming as a categorical exemption, it must be included in the regulations. There are, nonetheless, certain factors that must be considered when applying this exemption:

B.     “near-live programming”

As the Commission recognizes in its commentary when discussing the definition of “near-live programming,” many factors make up what could be consider near-live programs. Similar to live programming, it is most certainly feasible to create audio descriptions for near-live programming. The same factors discussed in the previous paragraph apply to near-live programming. Because of these reasons the 7–day period sought by NAB for near-live programming is overly broad. Technologies and processes not only show that a transformation is taking place in how video programming is produced but how rapidly it is produced. To provide a 7-day period exemption as consideration for near-live programming suggests that we return to the 1990’s for seeking models of production. Broadcasters have the choice of contracting with their program providers to ensure that audio description is delivered at the time of program delivery. For optimal delivery of audio description, we believe that, when the video is delivered for broadcasting, it should be fully described. For near-live programming, ACB believes that the following considerations should be made in addition to the ones made for live programming:

Quality Standards

The FCC is right to raise the question of quality standards when contemplating its new video description rules. The history of its closed captioning requirements points to the unfortunate situation that, absent a firm FCC requirement for caption quality, the accuracy, timing, stylistic approaches, and overall usefulness of closed captioning has fallen dramatically over the past decade. Given this decline in quality, it is quite surprising to ACB that industry commenters almost universally take a negative approach to a quality standard. The reasons cited for this opposition are vague and ultimately equate to nothing more than “quality standards are bad.” As audio description is a mature process, many practices have been codified and have been determined to be optimal when providing audio description

The FCC has a number of video description best practices to rely upon for crafting a quality standard for its new rules and without such guidance from the FCC, description quality is in fact likely to decline. The cited, objective, examples from the present NPRM are valuable parameters to consider:

Samples of available best practices documents include:

Through it's Audio Description Project, ACB has published Audio Description Guidelines and Best Practices, v. 3.0.

Apart from  ACB’s interest that video description be incorporated into content in an aesthetically pleasing and appropriate manner, we are also very interested in the overall quality of the sound that is delivered when video description is included in the broadcast.  We understand that the addition of a video description track introduces challenges and that broadcasters may be reluctant to devote the additional bandwidth that is necessary to deliver video-described content in the same full surround sound that they provide for content lacking video description.  However, broadcasting such content in mono or stereo format can compromise the audio experience of the blind or   visually impaired audience and is, therefore, undesirable.

Sound is obviously vital to  our community.  Beyond being an important source of our information, sound is a source of special satisfaction and pleasure. We ask that the quality of the content delivered to us matches the quality of that delivered to the sighted audience – especially in the dimension of sound.

We understand that in Europe this issue has already been addressed and that the broadcast industry there has succeeded in ensuring that the blind and   visually impaired community experiences the same quality of sound as the sighted audience.  We therefore ask that the FCC investigate the handling of this issue in Europe.

Respectfully submitted

Eric Bridges

Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs
American Council of the Blind
2200 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 650
Arlington, VA 22201

[email protected]

 /1/ American Foundation for the Blind, 2008