There certainly has been a lot of activity on the accessible media front. Here's why: the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) includes a number of provisions regulating the production and availability of accessible broadcast media and devices—television sets, set-top boxes, digital video recorders (DVRs) and descriptive video for broadcast and non-broadcast channel programing.
To help provide a better understanding of the rapidly changing landscape of video accessibility, AccessWorld spoke with Brian Charlson, Director of Technology at the Carrolle Center and member of the FCC Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee, which helped draft the CVAA.
Defining the Issues
We began by asking Brian Charlson to help us more clearly understand the problem of accessibility for broadcast media.
"These days a television is a lot more than an on/off switch, volume control, and channel up and down buttons," he began. "There are so many new and exciting things a television can do, and as consumers who are blind or visually impaired, we are not always even aware of what they are."
Ask many blind individuals if they watch TV, and they say yes, definitely. But when you ask them about their viewing habits they may say something along the lines of, "I turn it on for the 6 o'clock news on Channel 4. Then I watch "Friends" repeats on Channel 12, and after that I turn to Channel 10 to watch CBS prime time shows."
"For this individual, and many like him or her, TV watching is done by rote—memorizing what is on when and on which channel, and then sticking to that schedule," Charlson says. "This worked fine back in the days of 3 channels, maybe 4 but today, with 300 or 400 channels to choose from, those old ways simply don't work anymore."
Sighted people can flip through the channels, and most over-the-air channels and cable and satellite providers will flash the network name and show title on the screen for identification. A blind person may need to wait several minutes for a commercial to end, and then a few more trying to figure out what show is on. Multiply this by an ever-growing channel lineup and it's easy to see that channel surfing is not a workable option for those with visual impairments.
"Sighted users also have a program guide channel to show them what's on currently, and, even more useful at times, what is going to be on starting in 30 minutes, an hour, or even tomorrow afternoon," Charlson says. True, this information is available online, or via a smartphone app, but this requires the individual to develop and maintain computer skills just to find and watch TV.
"Elderly, newly blind individuals are the fastest growing segment of the blind community. In general, they tend to be frequent TV viewers. They are also the ones who are least likely to have developed the skills to operate an accessible PC or smartphone," adds Charlson.
There is also the equipment itself. "In my house we have four TVs, each in different rooms. And not one of them uses the same remote with the same button layout," Charlson reports. "Add a digital cable box or a DVR to each set and it's no wonder so many blind persons do not take full advantage of their equipment or available programming."
CVAA Device Standards
Here is a summary describing the upcoming accessible device standards required of all new TV sets, cable boxes, and DVRs manufactured after December 2016.
The following functions must be made accessible if the feature is included in the device at the time of manufacture. If these functions are delivered via a text menu or guide, they must be made audibly accessible, which is to say the device must "speak" the menu or guide. If a feature is not delivered through a menu or guide—for example, turning a set on or off—there is no audible accessibility requirement, but it still must be made accessible to those who are blind or visually impaired.
- Power on/off: an accessible method to turn a device on or off must be available.
- Volume adjust and mute: an accessible method to adjust and mute the device's volume must be available.
- Channel/program selection: users must be able to accessibly select channels and programs via physical numeric or channel up/channel down buttons or via on-screen guides and menus. This includes the ability to select non-linear programming such as VOD and recorded DVR programming, and the ability to launch applications such as Netflix.
- Display channel/program info: users must be able to accessibly display current channel or program information.
- Configuration, setup: users must be able to accessibly access and change configuration or setup options, such as configuration of video display and audio settings, selection of preferred language for on-screen guides or menus, etc.
- Configuration, video description control: users must be able to accessibly enable or disable the output of video description, which is to say to change from the main audio to the secondary audio stream that contains video description and from the secondary audio stream back to the main audio. This rule only pertains to equipment that includes Secondary Audio Programming (SAP), which is not required but which most set manufactures provide.
- Configuration, CC options: users must be able to accessibly modify the display of closed caption data, including configuration of the font size, font color, background color, opacity, etc.
- Configuration, CC control: users must be able to accessibly enable or disable the display of closed captioning.
- Display configuration info: users must be able to accessibly display how user preferences are currently configured.
- Playback functions: users must be able to accessibly control playback functions, including pause, play, rewind, fast forward, stop, and record for DVR and video on demand.
- Input selection: users must be able to accessibly select their preferred input source, such as the port connected to an Apple TV or Chromecast.
The new regulations also specify that these accessibility features may not be restricted to a manufacturer's highest-end, which is to say their most expensive, models. "If a set maker's lineup includes 32-inch, 45-inch and 60-inch models, for example, each of the different screen sizes must have an accessible model available, and for no additional cost," states Charlson.
Along with equipment manufacturers, the new guidelines also affect broadcast and cable networks, as well as service providers, including cable and satellite TV companies.
Requirements for Broadcast and Non-Broadcast Networks
Currently, the top four broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—are required to provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children's programming per calendar quarter, or approximately 4 hours each week. Same-week rebroadcasts do not count toward the 50 hours.
The requirement to provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of video-described programming also applies to the top five cable networks, which are currently USA, Disney Channel, TNT, Nickelodeon, and TBS. These rankings will be reassessed in July of 2015.
Requirements for Local TV Stations
Today, local ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates in the top 25 US markets are required to own and operate the equipment to broadcast video description. They must also provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children's programming per quarter. This is the minimum. If the network provides even more video description, the local affiliate must pass it through. There is no requirement for non-network affiliated local stations.
Some smaller network affiliates do not currently have the equipment to broadcast the video description signal. Others have the equipment but choose to use it to add an additional language channel. As of July 1, 2016, the regulations will expand to cover local network affiliates in the top 60 US markets.
This is their target deadline for installing the necessary equipment and joining the top 25 markets in broadcasting at least 50 hours of described content per quarter.
Requirements for Cable and Satellite Companies
Cable and satellite companies, known as multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) that serve 50,000 or more subscribers must also own and operate the equipment necessary to broadcast video description. They, too, must provide 50 hours of video description per calendar quarter during prime time or children's programming on each of the top five national non-broadcast networks that they carry: USA, the Disney Channel, TNT, Nickelodeon, and TBS.
Smaller MVPD systems are not currently required to install the equipment or pass through video description. If they do provide this service, however, they must offer everything that is available. For example, the History Channel is not currently required to provide video-described programming because it is not in the top 5. However, if the History Channel airs a video-described program, any cable or satellite company that offers described video must include the show in their service.
For cable companies, adding more descriptive video presents few challenges. Unfortunately, it's a different matter for satellite companies. For them, each new video description stream requires the use of limited satellite resources.
"We have to maintain a level playing field, so that blind consumers receive the same amount of accessible programming, regardless of whether they subscribe to cable or satellite service," notes Charlson. "This is why the amount of required described programming was not immediately increased."
According to the FCC, however, if the commission determines that the need for and benefits of providing video description for television programming outweigh the technical and economic costs, the Commission has authority two years after a June 30, 2014 Report to Congress to adopt additional regulations, including increasing the 50-hours-per-quarter requirement by up to 75 percent. This would result in roughly 7 hours per week of descriptive video programming per provider, which could be implemented on June 30, 2016 at the earliest.
What It All Means
The good news is that if you are currently in the market for a new TV, you will soon have several models to choose from that offer many, but not all, of the new accessibility requirements. The bad news is that it's not uncommon for newer releases of accessibility software to run only on newer sets, which means after December of 2016 you may be left with a set that will not run a full roster of these features.
Of course, this assumes that all parties implement the services properly. If the devices are not accessible in time, the manufacturer must show the FCC all of the steps they have taken toward making them accessible. To date, however, no fines or other penalties for non-compliance have been determined.
As for video description, the new regulations will not immediately increase the amount of described video available. It will merely codify what is already being done. There is the hope, but not the promise, of more to come.
Another potential issue is that, based on the way the regulations are written, providers must file paperwork every year evaluating their success in implementing accessibility. However, it is up to us, the consumer, to report problems, and, notes Charlson: "Unlike for closed screen captioning, there is no mandated complaint office or hotline where we can report problems with network[s] or your local cable company or broadcast channels' described video or other accessibility features."
Another still unresolved issue is the accessibility of streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu. "Launching the apps must be made accessible, but the waters are still rather muddy as to whether or not actually being able to use these services accessibly falls under the new regulations," says Charlson.
One last issue Charlson brings up is the learning curve for sight-impaired TV consumers. "Many of the soon-to-be available features and capabilities have been added gradually, over the years, allowing sighted consumers to build on previous knowledge and experience. "For us it will be like stepping into a rapidly flowing river," he says. "For example, until now it has been all but impossible for us to set a DVR to record a program so we can watch it later. Now we'll want to know not only how to record "M.A.S.H.," but also how to instruct our DVR to record all of the episodes being played at any time and on any channel, but not the ones I've already seen." It is not likely we will be able to request DVR training from our local rehab agency. And as of now the FCC has yet to determine whether to impose information, documentation, and training requirements on manufacturers and service providers.