Citizen’s Guide to the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters
How Obligations Are Making a Difference in People's Lives Today
Emergency Services & Disability Access
As regulators consider how broadcasters can meet community needs in a digital future, its helpful to look at how implemented public obligations can succeed, and how they already play a role in our daily lives.
The State of Television in Emergencies
Public interest obligations play a critical role, in fact a life-saving role, in the lives of Americans and the safety of our nation. In part because these obligations require broadcasters to serve local community needs, television today provides timely and effective emergency warnings that save lives, reduce property losses, and speed economic recovery.
Local stations report threatening weather, cover live unfolding events, and deliver the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to living rooms across the country.1 Images of television reporters braving storms have become almost comical clichés, but for people in communities facing both natural and man-made emergencies, broadcast outlets often serve as the main link to the information and instructions they need to ride out the situation safely.
Fortunately, broadcasters have always taken seriously their fundamental public interest responsibility to warn viewers about impending natural disasters and to keep them informed about disaster-related events. In order to better protect children in an emergency, broadcasters are also now implementing the AMBER Plan in which they use the EAS to alert the public of serious child abduction cases.2
But the world has changed since 9/11 and our homeland security needs have changed with it. The Emergency Alert System, as FCC Chairman Powell has said, "has fallen into disarray and needs major reform."3 Even during the 9/11 attacks, the EAS was not activated.4
The Transition to Digital and EAS
Digital broadcast technology provides many new and innovative ways to transmit warnings to people at risk, including ways to warn individuals who have hearing and vision disabilities, and even to pinpoint specific households or neighborhoods at risk. Digital TV sets could even be programmed to automatically turn on and deliver warning messages in at-risk areas. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Working Group on Natural Disaster Information Systems, most of these innovations will require minimal use of the spectrum available to digital broadcasters.5 To determine the most effective means to transmit important information, broadcasters and appropriate emergency communications specialists and manufacturers should be working together to craft a new EAS for the digital age.
Proposed Solutions for EAS
The FCC has before it the beginnings of a plan to revamp the EAS and fix defects exposed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and recent local disasters.6 The Commission now has an opportunity to transform the Emergency Alert System from a Cold War relic into a digital-age defense against terrorist attacks and other catastrophes. The goals of an improved EAS would be to:
- Give the public better information about pending storms, toxic threats, and medical emergencies by relaying local alerts via an always-on digital version of today’s system.
- Deliver evacuation routes in a local disaster using interactive digital television links.
- Converge with other systems to deliver warnings and wake-up calls via the Internet, cell phones, or other wireless devices.
- Provide a warning system that works even when the TV is turned off – any device, anytime, anywhere.
The State of Television for the Disability Community
Another example of public interest obligations making a difference comes from the disability community. Federal law mandates that broadcast and cable programming be fully accessible through the provision of closed captioning – a transcription of the audio portion of a TV program.7
Between January 1, 2004, and December 31, 2005, television broadcast stations must provide at least an average of 1350 hours of captioned video programming and, as of January 1, 2006, and thereafter, 100 percent of the stations' new video programming must be provided with captions. In addition, television broadcast stations that are affiliated with any television network must pass through video description when the network provides it and the station has the technical capability necessary to do so.8 (Video description is the insertion of verbal descriptions about the setting and action in a program.) Here are a few examples of how these services are already making a difference in people's lives:
- For 28 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, closed captions provide a critical link to news, information, education, and entertainment, enabling these individuals to be part of the civic and cultural mainstream of our society.9
- For individuals whose native language is not English, English captions are used to improve comprehension and fluency.10
- For children, studies have shown that captions have helped children learn to read and have improved literacy skills.11
For many others, closed captioning allows them to watch TV in restaurants, bars, fitness centers, or other public places where it is hard to listen. In July 2000, the FCC adopted rules to ensure that the visually impaired can more effectively benefit from television by requiring that a certain amount of programming contain video description. 12 However, just two years later, a federal court struck down the rules.13 Nonetheless, some broadcasters continue to provide video description in their programming – and more should do the same.
The Transition to Digital for the Disabled
The obligation to provide captioning access should and will continue into the digital era. Digital technology will open new avenues to enhance and expand captioning access.
- The ability to alter the size of captions will enable visually impaired viewers to see both captions and other text appearing on a television screen.
- Captioning on public service announcements, public affairs programming, and political programming can provide greater access to additional critical programming.
- Video description technology provides a way to let people who are blind or have low vision know what is happening on screen.