For more than half a century, television has been one of the most important mediums for entertainment and news. But, television is not always accessible to individuals with disabilities, who may miss key information because they cannot hear the audio or see what is on screen. Closed captions and video description can make television and other video programming more accessible to individuals with disabilities… if they’re available.
One of the major goals of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) was to expand the availability of closed captioning and video description for individuals with disabilities.
Television broadcasters have long been required to provide closed captions for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. But, these rules did not apply to video distributed over the internet, whether through streaming sites like Netflix or Hulu or through digital storefronts like Apple’s iTunes Store. In many cases, closed captioning information was lost as a program made the transition from broadcast to streaming. The CVAA sought to fix this problem.
Under the rules as implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), video programming that appears on television must maintain closed captioning when distributed over the internet, and videos initially distributed over the internet must later be closed captioned if they are then shown on television.
The owner of the video programming (such as the network or studio that created it or owns the copyright) has the burden of creating and providing the closed captioning to the internet distributor in at least the same quality as the original television captions. Video programming distributors (such as streaming video sites) are then themselves responsible for passing the closed captioning on to users without any degradation in quality.
Video description (also called described video) is a service that provides audio description of the key visual elements of video programming in order to make them more accessible to some individuals who are blind or who have limited vision.
The FCC first attempted to require video description in 2000, when it mandated broadcasters in the nation’s 25 largest television markets and the top five cable networks offer some content with video description. After a lawsuit, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the rules, finding that the FCC did not have authority to require video description. Congress remedied that when it passed the CVAA, expressly reinstating the FCC’s 2000 regulations, with provisions allowing them to be gradually expanded over ten years.
As of 2017, broadcast stations in the top 60 television markets and the five largest cable networks must provide at least 50 hours of video description per quarter (roughly four hours per week), made up of either primetime or children’s programming. Beginning on July 1, 2018, an additional 37.5 hours of programming must be provided per quarter. Beginning in 2020, the FCC will have authority to add an additional 10 television markets per year.
Cable systems and local broadcast stations (including those outside of the top 60 markets) are required to pass through video description when feasible, unless the technology is being used for another purpose that would conflict with providing video description.
As of the time of writing, there is no requirement under the CVAA for internet-based video services to provide video description, though proactively doing so may help minimize potential legal liability under other accessibility laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
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