As we’ve previously written, the FCC adopted an Audible Crawl Rule in April 2013 requiring TV stations, by today, May 26, 2015, to present aurally on a secondary audio program stream (“SAP”) any non-newscast emergency information that a station presents visually. On March 27, 2015, the National Association of Broadcasters (“NAB”) filed a petition urging the FCC to grant a six-month extension of this deadline. The NAB also requested that the FCC (i) waive the requirement that visual but non-textual emergency information be included in the audible crawl, and (ii) reconsider the utility of including school closing information in its list of emergency information to be included in the SAP. Today, the FCC released a Memorandum Opinion and Order announcing that it will grant each of the NAB’s three waiver requests, extending the general compliance deadline by six months to November 30, 2015.
As adopted, the rule would have required all emergency information presented visually to be fully conveyed verbally on the SAP twice, including weather maps and school closings. Unfortunately, certain inherently graphical information, such as a Doppler Radar map, does not contain text files that can simply be converted to speech—making compliance not only difficult, but arguably impossible (e.g., imagine describing a Doppler Radar map twice in the time it is onscreen.). The NAB also contended that the aural presentation of lengthy school closure lists “serves no real utility, [and] may in fact impede timely provision of emergency information to vision impaired viewers” that could obtain school closure information through more efficient means. The 50 State Broadcasters Associations and the Society of Broadcast Engineers were among commenters that filed in support of the waiver requests.
Balancing the challenges of implementation against the concerns stated in comments submitted by the American Council of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind, the FCC announced that it will waive the requirement to aurally describe visual but non-textual emergency information, but limit the waiver to 18 months. Broadcasters now have until November 2016 before the FCC will require them to “aurally describe the critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to the emergency . . . including the critical details conveyed solely by a map or other graphic display.”
Lastly, as the NAB requested (and all commenters supported), the FCC will waive the requirement that school closing announcements and bus schedule changes be included in the audible crawl SAP pending FCC reconsideration of that issue as part of its Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (adopted May 21, 2015, but not yet released by the FCC).
As the compliance deadline was set to kick in today, many broadcasters were likely contemplating which was the better of two bad options—ceasing to visually provide any emergency information, or risking an enforcement action for failing to convert onscreen text (or graphics) into speech. Fortunately, today’s waiver grant avoids the need for broadcasters to make that Hobson’s choice, so better late than never!