The FCC expects TV makers to start building TVs that can recognize VI audio.

In late August, the FCC released new rules for “video description.” This is the audio track for visually impaired viewers that carries both the main program audio and a narrative description of the onscreen action of a TV program or movie. This was required by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA). The FCC basically reinstated the rules it had enacted in 2000, rules that were thrown out by the U.S. Court of Appeals. But circumstances have changed since 2000, and delivery approaches that seemed reasonable then might seem awkward now.

Jeffrey KraussPart of the problem is all of those pesky old analog TV sets out there. When the video description rules were first adopted by the FCC, that’s pretty much all that was out there. The most they could handle was two audio tracks: the main audio channel and the Second Audio Program (SAP) channel. The SAP channel was typically used to deliver a Spanish-language audio track, at least for programs that had two audio tracks. Users knew to select SAP to listen to Spanish.

So when some analog programs started to carry a video description track, it had to be delivered to the viewer on the SAP channel. There were only two audio channels available, so the Spanish audio track was bumped off. And everyone – viewers, broadcasters, cable operators – knew to expect that.

Then digital TV came along. Digital TV in the United States uses Dolby AC-3 audio, which has the capability to carry far more than just two audio tracks. It can carry numerous languages, and for each language, it can carry both the main audio and a descriptive video track. In AC-3 jargon, the main audio is denoted as CM (complete main), and the video description track is denoted as VI (visually impaired).

But during the transition from analog to digital, broadcasters were delivering the same programming on their digital channel as on their analog channel. So they never carried more than two audio tracks, either English and Spanish or English and video description. And for their digital channel, when they carried video description, they called it Spanish, partly because viewers were trained from analog TV to select video description by selecting the Spanish audio, and partly because the digital TVs did not have a menu selection for VI.

And, as a result of this broadcaster practice, digital TV set makers never created user interfaces that allowed users to select the VI video description audio track. Virtually all of the digital TVs on the market expect to receive audio marked as CM (either English or Spanish or both) and do not expect to receive audio marked as VI. Similarly, those off-air adapter boxes that the government subsidized with coupons can receive Spanish, but not VI.

And cable set-top boxes followed the same pattern, for the same reason.

Now comes the CVAA and the FCC Order that implements that law’s requirement to reinstate the video description rules. The four commercial network affiliate broadcasters in the top 25 markets and the five largest cable programmers will have to deliver 50 hours per calendar quarter of video-described programming. That’s about four hours per week per network. And TV stations and cable operators are required to pass through any video description audio tracks supplied by the networks. But there’s the rub. If the programming comes in with three audio tracks – English CM, English VI and Spanish CM – but your customers can only receive two, which one do you bump?

So the FCC Order recognizes the problem of equipment that can only receive two channels of audio and the impact it has on broadcasters and cable operators. The FCC created an exception called “other program-related content,” and it said that VI did not have to pass through but could be bumped if there was “other program-related content” using the second audio channel.

The FCC said: “Thus, if we were to eliminate the exception for other program-related content, one of two things would likely happen. Stations and systems would replace some other program-related content with video description to comply with the pass-through requirement, potentially depriving audiences, including in many instances non-English-speaking communities who use the second audio stream to receive Spanish-language programming, of a valuable service. Alternatively, stations and systems would provide the passed-through video description on an audio stream tagged ‘VI,’ making it difficult, if not impossible, for the target audience to access it.”

The FCC expects TV makers to start building TVs that can recognize VI audio and display it as a menu choice. The FCC expects broadcasters to start delivering video description correctly labeled as VI rather than labeling it as Spanish. The FCC envisions a transition, but it has no idea when there will be enough of those new digital TVs to make this transition practical. And neither do I.