The Federal Communications Commission appointed a mixture of media behemoths, including ABC and Comcast, and top disability advocates to serve on its new Video Programming and Emergency Access Advisory Committee (VPEAAC). The 45-member committee will guide FCC policy on captions and audio descriptions for video programming and emergency services that are delivered over the Internet.
Following the passage of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which President Obama signed on October 8, the FCC announced the creation of VPEAAC. Among the many provisions of the law, all broadcast and cable networks must, by 2012, include closed captions on over-the-Web programming for the deaf and hearing impaired, and require a small amount of audio descriptions for the blind and visually impaired. As such, programs like Dancing with the Stars and Glee must be captioned when shown over the Web. Non-commercial programming, such as YouTube videos, are exempt.
The VPEAAC committee includes top content providers, as well as technology providers that create video formats and players. Interested parties who will serve on the committee include:
– Adobe, which owns the Flash platform on which NBC’s Hulu.com and other video players distribute programming over the Internet
- Broadcast networks like NBC and Disney ABC that that are looking at Internet programming as a new business model but are wary of the new law’s implications
- Cable distributors like Comcast and Cox Communications, and satellite distributors like DirecTV, which have seen their subscription numbers drop off as consumers turn to Internet-based programming, which will be required to have captions under the new law
- Telecommunications companies like AT&T, which soon must provide accessible voice over Internet Protocol technologies to subscribers, including its relay services to the deaf and hearing impaired
- The Consumer Electronics Association, which is being charged with creating accessible devices such as “talking” set-top cable/satellite boxes for the visually impaired. CEA has argued that mandatory buttons on smart phones means that innovations like the buttonless iPhone might never have made it to market
- Non-commerical video distributors like Google, which owns YouTube and currently provides one of the only open-source options for automatic captions on the Web (Deaf Google engineer Ken Harrenstein will serve as an alternate for the committee)
- Movie studio trade associations such as the Motion Picture Association of America, which for decades has fought against adding captions to its movie theaters for the deaf and hearing impaired, citing the issue of costs. The six major motion studio companies partner with Netflix, which currently does not caption its Internet movie library — even though nearly half of its 11 million subscribers streamed at least one TV episode or movie in the third quarter of 2009, according to the MPAA website
- Broadcast TV trade associations including the National Association of Broadcasters, which now has to come up with a viable solution for captioning 100% of its Web programming if it was previously shown on TV
The good news is that disability advocacy groups are well represented, too. They include 11 members of the Coalition for Accessible Technology (COAT), the 130-member group that helped push through the recent 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. Among the COAT representatives are Melanie Brunson of the American Council of the Blind; Brad Hodges of the American Foundation for the Blind; Lisa Hamlin of the Hearing Loss Association of America, Rosaline Crawford of the National Association of the Deaf, and Larry Goldberg of the WGBH National Center on Accessible Media.
Within 6 months of its first meeting, the committee must establish whether broadcast and cable networks are doing enough to fulfill their captioning obligations under the new law, and ensure that technical compatibility for receiving and displaying captions are in place. In April 2012, the committee must make recommendations on other provisions of the law, such as the progress being made for audio descriptions, accessible emergency information on Internet programming, and accessible user interfaces on video programming devices for the blind.
The first meeting is scheduled on January 13, 2011 at the FCC’s headquarters, and is open to the public. It’s clear that the commission designed its committee to be well-balanced among industry and advocates. Given the ability of COAT to pass a law so instrumental to ensuring accessibility for Internet programming for the disabled, and given their wide representation on the new committee, it seems that COAT’s persuasive powers have only just begun to serve the 54 million Americans with disabilities.
- By Suzanne Robitaille
Related article: Web Content Accessibility Law Needs More Brawn
Related article: Letting the Blind Tune In to TV and the Web