FCC Reminds Television Broadcasters and MVPDs to Maintain Accessible Televised Emergency Information During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

The FCC recently reminded television broadcasters and multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs) of the importance of providing accessible televised emergency information amid concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other resources, the FCC recirculated a Consumer Guide for accessibility and a link to the Public Notice reminding broadcasters and MVPDs to make televised emergency information accessible.

While this requirement extends only to programming produced by television broadcasters and MVPDs, we also note that digital video programming apparatus , including video players, must have the capability to transmit emergency information “in a manner that is accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired.” Further, any programming transmitted on television with captions must include captions when transmitted online.

Definitions and Applications

The FCC’s regulation, 47 CFR § 79.2(a)(2), defines emergency information as “[i]nformation, about a current emergency, that is intended to further the protection of life, health, safety, and property, i.e., critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to the emergency.” Examples of the types of emergencies covered by the rule range from “tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods to school closings and changes in school bus schedules resulting from such conditions.”

Critical details include but are not limited to “specific details regarding the areas that will be affected by the emergency, evacuation orders, detailed descriptions of areas to be evacuated, specific evacuation routes, approved shelters or the way to take shelter in one’s home, instructions on how to secure personal property, road closures, and how to obtain relief assistance.”

Although the emergency information rules relate primarily to distribution to an audience in the geographic area in which the emergency is occurring, the FCC has suggested that the rule also may apply to information provided during programming that is distributed outside the area immediately affected by an emergency. Such would be the case for a large-scale pandemic such as COVID-19, which may primarily affect one region but may also have an impact on outlying areas.

Compliance Obligations

  • Individuals Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired – Emergency information provided in the video portion of newscast (whether regularly scheduled or breaking news) must be made accessible by aurally describing the emergency information in the main audio portion of the programming. When emergency information is conveyed visually during programming other than newscasts (e.g., through “crawling” or “scrolling” text during regular programming), an aural tone on the main audio stream must accompany the visual information. Additionally, such visual emergency information must be conveyed aurally in full at least twice through a secondary audio stream, preceded by an aural tone on that stream. Aural emergency information must supersede all other programming on the secondary audio stream.
  • Individuals Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing – Emergency information provided in the audio portion of programming also must be accessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing through closed captioning or other methods of visual presentation including open captioning, crawls or scrolls that appear on the screen. Visual presentation of emergency information may not block any closed captioning, and closed captioning may not block any emergency information provided by crawls, scrolls, or other visual means.
  • Digital Apparatus – All apparatus that is designed to receive or play back video programming transmitted simultaneously with sound that is provided by broadcasters or MVPDs must have the capability to decode and make available the secondary audio stream to facilitate the transmission of emergency information in a manner that is accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired.
  • Online Transmissions – All nonexempt full-length video programming delivered using Internet protocol must be provided with closed captions if the programming is published or exhibited on television in the United States with captions. All nonexempt video clips delivered using Internet protocol must be provided with closed captions if the video programming distributor or provider posts on its website or application a video clip of video programming that it published or exhibited on television in the United States with captions.

The FCC is actively monitoring complaints alleging violations of the emergency information rule and reviewing the possibility of enforcement action.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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