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New FCC rules will give blind Americans more pleasure from TV. So why do broadcasters want to pull the plug?

Like many Washingtonians, Kathy Gosselin likes NBC’s drama The West Wing. She’s also keen on the network’s prime-time game show, The Weakest Link, and Fox’s drama Boston Public. But because Gosselin is blind, she often misses out on little things, such as a character’s smile or wink. When she talks about her favorite shows, Gosselin says, “It would be nice to have some description, just like, ‘She went and opened the door.’”

A new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule set to take effect next April is aimed at helping Gosselin and other blind TV consumers get more of the picture. Spearheaded by former FCC Chair William Kennard (who pushed hard for increased access for the blind during his tenure), the rule requires the four major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—to provide about four hours a week of described prime-time and/or childrens’ programming in the top 25 markets. Cable channels with 50,000 or more subscribers will also be required to provide what is known as “described video.”

According to Gosselin—who has sampled it via PBS programs—described video is a narrative overlay that fills the natural silences in a TV show. When David Duchovny’s character, Fox Mulder, walks across the room in silence and peers into a closet on The X-Files, for instance, a narrator describes his actions aloud. Many televisions are already equipped to use described video (which resembles the widely used closed-captioning system), and some cable channels (such as Turner Classic Movies) have already started using it.

Not everyone in the entertainment industry, however, is giving the FCC’s described-video rule a standing ovation. Several heavy-hitting groups—including the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Motion Picture Association of America—have opposed it from the get-go. Their antipathy led them to file suit last spring in the U.S. District Court of Appeals to push back the FCC’s April 2002 deadline.

The broadcasting groups that have filed suit won’t say much, if anything, about their lawsuit. Some spokespersons refused to return several calls from the Washington City Paper or referred the paper to other plaintiffs in the suit.

Advocates for the described-video technology have tried to counter the silence via protest. In June, the American Council of the Blind picketed the NAB’s star-studded Service to America Summit at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, D.C. (which included appearances by Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame and the The Bionic Woman’s Lindsay Wagner). The council’s protest decried the hypocrisy of a gala—emceed by 1976 Olympic decathalon gold medalist Bruce Jenner—that celebrated broadcast-industry charity by contrasting it with the same industry’s fight to deny blind Americans the benefit of new technology.

Other telecom industry officials who represent industries fighting the FCC rule are aware of their precarious PR position. “It’s a sensitive subject—and a no-win situation,” says Marc Smith, senior director of communications at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). “We get [people who ask], ‘Oh what, you don’t like blind people?’”

Smith argues that the NCTA’s opposition is largely jurisdictional. “We’re challenging FCC authority to order something [it has] not [been] given directions on from Congress,” he observes. “It could be ‘Bake bread for people,’ but instead it’s a mandate on described video.” Smith insists that opponents are not against described video. “The association rejects the idea that the government tells us to do it,” he notes. “The government doesn’t have the right to force us to do it.”

Documents submitted to the FCC by opponents in February and November 2000 cite “considerable new burdens” that video description will bring about for TV networks and cable operators. Smith concedes that the “burdens” are essentially the high price tag. The FCC has pegged the cost of providing the technology as high as $3,400 per program hour, or $700,000 for each cable network for a year’s worth (four hours weekly) of video-described programming.

Charlie Crawford, executive director of the American Council for the Blind, says that the cost argument holds no water. Broadcast executives, says Crawford, “have already admitted to the FCC that costs are negligible. It’s pretty hard to prove it’s a burden given the budgets available to the entertainment industry.”

Crawford also dismisses the jurisdictional argument. He says that there is “plenty of evidence that the FCC has the authority [to mandate something like described video] if it’s in the public’s interest. Commission officials are [using] the Americans With Disabilities Act in terms of accessibility to products. Having described video allows us to more fully participate in society.”

An interesting subplot in the battle between advocates for the blind and broadcasters is a fifth column of sorts within the ranks of organizations supporting the blind. A group that bills itself as the “nation’s largest and most influential membership organization of blind persons” is also against the FCC’s described-video regulations.

Jim Gashel, director of governmental affairs at the Baltimore-based National Federation for the Blind, says that the group’s members have voted several times on the issue at their national conventions. “We don’t think described video should rise to the level of a federal mandate,” he says. “It’s not something for the federal government to regulate.”

Gashel says that a broader concept of what blind people need is required. “There’s a certain burden [that comes with the rule], and there’s probably no free lunch,” he continues. “The next thing we ask for, they’ll say, ‘Well, we gave you described video.’” Federation officials would rather see, for instance, an FCC mandate on the emergency warnings that often scroll across the bottom of the TV screen. “If words are printed on the screen, they should be spoken,” says Gashel. “We particularly flag hazard warnings, [such as] ‘There’s a tornado that’s about ready to blow your house away.’ There are beep tones [right now], but it’s not clear information. It doesn’t tell you anything.”

Gashel says that the described-video mandate sends the wrong message. “The notion that described entertainment is more important than accessible information is wrong,” says Gashel. “I don’t really know why the FCC went ahead just with this. There’s a certain amount of sentimentality that goes with sighted people thinking, ‘Oh gee, I’d be deprived if I didn’t know about all the nuances on TV.’ Really, you don’t miss all that much, and most blind people will tell you it doesn’t matter.”

Gashel does admit that, unlike Gosselin, he is not a fan of prime-time TV. He prefers news programs. “Does that mean I don’t miss things on television? Well, I’m sure I do, but I don’t think I’m any less of a person because of that,” he says. “It was better back in the ’50s with Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy. Now you have Caroline in the City, and, frankly, the shows aren’t that compelling.” CP