Distribution & Delivery Global Viewpoint – November 2017

FCC Audio Descriptions: What you need to know

Blind people consume as much video programming as do sighted people. In recent years, the FCC has actively increased audio description requirements through the CVAA (21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act). Broadcasters are required to provide audio descriptions for certain content. Here is what you need to know.

Video description, also called audio description, is an audio-narrated description of a television program's key visual elements. These descriptions are normally played over the secondary audio channel, sometimes called the SAP channel. Broadcasters need to understand FCC rules regarding the broadcast of audio description.

Emergency information

The FCC requires video programming distributors and providers to make the critical details of emergency information accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. This includes any information intended to further the protection of life, health, safety, and property.

The critical details include, but aren't limited to; specific details regarding the area that will be affected by the emergency, the evacuation orders, detailed descriptions of areas that must be evacuated, specific evacuation routes, approved shelters, or the way that someone would need to take shelter in one's own home, and instructions on how to secure personal property. Such critical details during an emergency must be made accessible to all audiences.

If you are blind and watching television, and you hear the emergency information tones -- normally three beeps in a row. It means that there's some sort of emergency information being displayed. That information is typically presented as a crawl or a scroll on the screen.

SAP confusion

A blind or visually impaired person would want to immediately switch to the secondary audio stream. The SAP channel is supposed to broadcast the emergency information read out loud. During regularly scheduled programming, SAP can include all sorts of interesting audio streams. Often, a Spanish language version of the show being watched is carried on the SAP channel. Sometimes, there is described video. Sometimes there's no sound at all or the secondary audio stream is playing the main audio stream. For these reasons, viewers may not listen full time to a station's SAP channel.

Effective last July, the FCC began requiring that cable, satellite and fiber TV services pass through the secondary audio stream that contains audible emergency information. This also applies when customers are allowed to access regular television programming on second-screen devices. This rule requires cable and satellite companies ensure that any application or plug-in used to access regular TV programming on those devices also receives the emergency information.

A key point. This rule applies only to a cable or satellite company's own network. Typically this would be the cable or satellite company's in-home TV service when it is accessed via a broadband connection.This rule doesn't apply if that same customer is using, for example, the Wi-Fi at Starbucks. But, if a viewer is watching cable in their own home on the cable company's broadband connection, the provider must pass through the secondary audio stream so they can hear the audio representation of any emergency information.

The SAP channel is used for audio description.

The SAP channel is used for audio description.

Required STB features

The blind or visually impaired have unique requirements in terms of controlling video devices, typically the STB. The FCC rules require that a user be able to operate and use all or most of the functions of such devices. This includes; the settings and the menus, channel selection, start and stop, fast forward, so on. Most of this is accomplished through a speech synthesizer, meaning that the program guides and menus are read out loud by converting the text on the screen to computer-generated speech.

As of now, only cable, satellite and fiber TV subscribers of the top 14 cable and satellite companies must be provided with access to a set-top box equipped with such features. Other cable and satellite companies must provide such STB features by December 20th, 2018. Cable and satellite companies have to make these devices available at no additional charge and easy for a viewer to obtain.

Streaming devices' required features

Another set of accessible user interface rules apply to the wide range of other devices that can access video programming. This would include televisions, smart TVs, tablets, smartphones and removable media players. The FCC's rules also apply to common streaming devices such as; Apple TVs, Roku and Amazon Fire sticks. These rules also cover computers because of they can also access broadband-delivered content.

The rules apply to any device manufactured after December 20th, 2016. Because many of these types of products are now increasingly popular, content providers and MVPDs must realize that meeting these FCC rules is not a trivial matter.

Some remote controls can challenge a viewer's need for quick access to emergency information.

Some remote controls can challenge a viewer's need for quick access to emergency information.

Remote control confusion

Often, TV remote controls have no simple or easy way to switch to a secondary audio stream or audio channel. Approved accessible-user interfaces, with their text-to-speech capability, will enable users to more easily navigate to the proper settings allowing them to change the audio stream.

One of the particularities of this rule includes the requirement that there be a mechanism that is reasonably similar to a button, key, or icon. One of these mechanisms must exist for each of the closed caption and for the video description functions.

A mechanism that is reasonably comparable to a button, key, or icon is vague, because these devices vary dramatically. Some remote controls are simple, with perhaps only five buttons. Cable and satellite remotes often have 60 or more buttons, some with multiple functions. It is unclear if a voice-controlled TV remote control would meet these requirements. This is a case where the technology leads regulations.

MVPDs need to realize that if a viewer cannot quickly access a secondary audio stream, they may miss any emergency information announcement. Likewise if one cannot easily turn on and off the secondary audio stream, the viewer will also not be able to listen to described video.

Local broadcaster requirements

The FCC rules call described video "video description." Almost everywhere else it is called audio description. They mean are the same thing in terms of broadcaster requirements.

The FCC recently expanded the amount of video description that must be provided, but not all broadcasters are currently required to provide audio descriptions. Currently, local TV station affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, located in the top 60 TV markets, and the top five non-broadcast networks, which include the Disney Channel, History Channel, PBS, TNT, and USA, must also provide audio descriptions.

There are some other program providers that include audio descriptions, but they do so voluntarily. A list of these stations is updated every three years and is slated to be re-evaluated in July 2018, so the list may change. A copy of the list is available on the FCC's website..

Not all TV stations are required by the FCC to transmit audio descriptions, but some stations broadcast them voluntarily. Click to enlarge.

Not all TV stations are required by the FCC to transmit audio descriptions, but some stations broadcast them voluntarily. Click to enlarge.

Changes coming July 2018

Before the current expansion of video description and the current requirements, covered stations were required provide 50 hours per quarter, or about 4 hours per week of video described prime time and/or children's programming.

The new rules require that on July 1st, 2018, the covered stations must begin providing 87 and 1/2 hours of video description per quarter. This totals about 7 hours per week of described video, which is an increased requirement of 75%. The 50 hours per quarter will continue to be required during prime time and/or children's programming. The additional 37 and 1/2 hours of described video can be aired anytime between the hours of 6:00 AM and midnight.

There are currently no quality standards for audio description. And there are no specific regulations for publication of audio description schedules. The Commission expected that the programs with audio descriptions would be somehow marked in published schedules. That appears to not have been the case, as consumers report it remains difficult to know what shows include audio descriptions.

Try it--Like it

Everyone should watch a few programs that contain audio descriptions. That is especially the case for professional broadcasters and content makers. First, you will better understand what the technology can provide. Second, you may discover that the technology actually adds to your enjoyment of a program.

Sighted people often find that audio descriptions help them better follow a complex program or themed show. An example would be watching a show which includes time travel. The audio description will normally clue the viewer in on things that indicate what time a character has traveled to, or point out a characteristic that indicates that a character is no longer the original person but rather a duplicate person or time-traveling person.

Such complex changes may be difficult for sighted people to follow. Actually, it can be quite enjoyable for a viewer to more easily follow a story with the additional detail while discovering program elements that they may have previously missed.

FCC Listserv

The FCC maintains a free listserv, which contains useful information about the FCC and the disability-related issues under discussion. To be added to the list, simply email AcessInfo@fcc.gov and ask to subscribe.

Editor note:

Will Schell is an Attorney Advisor at the Disability Rights Office of the FCC. He recently reviewed audio description requirements and content provider responsibilities in a webinar hosted by 3Play Media. This article is based on his web presentation. To view the webinar, click here. Images courtesy; 3Play Media.

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