Article from NY Times 11/22/99
Washington, Nov. 22 - The FCC has proposed that broadcasters be required to adopt technology allowing the blind to follow the action on television by listening to a narrator describe it.
The proposal, part of a broader FCC plan to make telecommunications more accessible to Americans with disabilities, would introduce to a large number of stations an innovation that is now used, voluntarily by just a few - most of them public television channels - which apply the technology to a limited number of programs.
"Television is the most important cultural medium in our society," William E. Kennard, the commission's chairman, said in an interview. "It is a shared experience that connects people. And we must do all that we can to break down the barriers to it." Of the 54 million Americans with disabilities, the commission says, 8 million to 12 million are blind or have only partial sight. "We cannot leave these people behind,: Mr. Kennard said.

The technology works by allowing the user to turn on a secondary audio programming channel, where a narrator describes the action during pauses in the dialogue. Audiences can hear that a character sadly buries his face in his hands, for example, or that someone is creeping through a darkened hallway.

Newscasts, sports coverage (which typically includes play by play descriptions) and talk shows would be exempt from the rules because the regular audio is generally sufficient to allow a vision impaired audience to follow those programs.

Jeffery Bobeck, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said the association was studying the proposal and would comment later. But in the three years that the rules have been under discussion, a number of broadcasters have pointed out that in some markets the secondary channel is already used for r Spanish and other foreign language audio, a potential conflict. The cost of providing video descriptions is another concern among broadcasters, whose comments on equipment and programming costs are being solicited by the FCC in the period of broader public comment that will now ensue.

The Video description rules were unanimously approved by Mr. Kennard and the four other commissioners last Thursday but will not become final until after the public comment period lasting several months. They are to be modeled on the existing closed captioning rules for hearing impaired - that is, they are to require initially that network affiliated broadcasters in the top 25 television markets provide video descriptions for roughly four hours a week of prime time programming or children's programming. This standard, which the broadcasters would have to meet no later than 18 months after final approval of the rules, would later be expanded to more hours.
Although the proposal is limited to analog broadcasting, it could later be applied to the emerging digital broadcasting as well as to cable operators, satellite operators and home satellite dish providers.
Public television has been active in the video description effort for more than a decade. WGBH in Boston for example, began to narrate the popular programs "Masterpiece Theater" and "Nature" in the 1980's
Charles Crawford, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, said people with loss of vision were at a disadvantage in communicating with friends and colleagues about popular culture because they missed so much of what occurred in sitcoms and television dramas.
"This is a victory for access, and for the family," Mr. Crawford said of the proposal. "it will relieve the burden of having a loved one describe what is happening on television."
Margaret Pfanstiehl, chairwoman of the National Television Video Access Coalition, called the proposal an "Enormous victory."
Mrs. Pfanstiehl who was awarded an Emmy in 1990 for her leadership and persistence in making television accessible to those with vision problems, said description of on screen action would be important for people of all ages.
And Chet Avery, a blind retired administrator for the Education Department, who attended the meeting where the FCC approved the rules last week said: "Everyone is going to win as a result of this. Access is going to be expanded and isn't that what democracy is all about?"