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FCC Grants TV Stations Last-Minute Reprieve on Certain Audible Crawl Requirements

CommLawCenter readers may recall that the FCC adopted a rule in 2013 requiring broadcasters to present aurally on a secondary audio stream (“SAS”) all emergency information provided visually during programming other than during regularly-scheduled newscasts and newscasts that interrupt regular programming.

This “Audible Crawl Rule” went into effect on May 26, 2015, with a few exceptions.  Following a request from the National Association of Broadcasters, the FCC (1) temporarily waived the requirement to aurally convey information regarding school closings via the SAS pending further consideration in a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and (2) extended the deadline to begin aurally describing inherently visual graphics, like Doppler Radar maps.  Consideration of the school closings requirement continues, and the FCC has twice extended the compliance deadline for inherently visual graphics.

In today’s Order, the FCC acknowledged that its aspirational reach continues to exceed the grasp of current technology, granting a joint petition from the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, and the NAB for a five-year extension of the current waiver until May 26, 2023.  To monitor progress on achieving the desired visual-to-aural capabilities, the FCC also required that the NAB file a report with the Commission by November 25, 2020, the midpoint of the five-year extension period.  The report must “detail the extent to which broadcasters have made progress in finding accessible solutions or alternatives to providing critical emergency details generally delivered in a graphic format, as well as the extent to which this waiver continues to be necessary.”

The Media Bureau first granted an 18-month waiver of this requirement in May 2015, in response to an NAB request for a six-month waiver of the compliance deadline.  In 2016, the same coalition of organizations seeking this latest extension requested an additional 18 months to implement an automated approach for compliance with this part of the rule.  That extension would have expired tomorrow, May 26, 2018.

The FCC enacted the Audible Crawl Rule pursuant to the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, which requires broadcasters to make emergency information available to blind or visually impaired individuals.  Originally adopted in April 2013, Section 79.2(b)(2)(ii) of the FCC’s Rules requires all visual emergency information presented outside of newscasts to be made available via SAS.  The rule applies to visual content that is textual (such as on-screen crawls) and non-textual (graphic displays).  According to the FCC, the aural description of visual but non-textual information must be intelligible and must “accurately and effectively convey the critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to the emergency.” 

In obtaining this latest extension, the proponents noted that an automated method of generating an aural equivalent of inherently visual moving graphics remains out of reach at this time.  The software used to generate these images does not contain text files that can be converted into speech, and the alternative would be to attempt to manually describe the graphics, which the proponents acknowledged is unduly burdensome and impractical.  The extension request indicated that, despite the efforts of broadcasters and outside vendors, a viable solution has yet to be achieved.

The extension proponents reiterated concerns raised in prior waiver requests.  For example, absent a waiver or a feasible technical solution, broadcasters would be forced to remove useful graphical information altogether to avoid FCC enforcement actions.  The proponents also noted that a further extension would not significantly reduce the amount of available emergency information because the inherently visual information in question is generally duplicative of accompanying textual crawls, which are currently subject to the Audible Crawl Rule and thus are already being aurally conveyed.

While broadcasters will obviously appreciate the extra time as technology vendors wrestle with the seemingly impossible task of automatically converting graphical information like a Doppler Radar map into aural speech, they should not assume the deadline will continue to be extended until that breakthrough occurs.  Today’s Order states that “[a]lthough we continue to believe that an automated solution is preferable to a manual approach that requires station personnel to describe every graphic, compliance with the Audible Crawl Rule is not predicated on the advent of such technology.”  In making this statement, the FCC is obviously seeking to keep the pressure on broadcasters to accomplish what is currently impossible.  Broadcasters must now prove they are up to that task.