This Federal Communications Commission proposal doesn’t accomplish much.

Jeffrey KraussA little over a year ago, I wrote about the newly reinstated FCC rules on video description. Video description is the audio track that gives sight-impaired viewers both the main program audio and a narrative description of the onscreen action of a TV program or movie. As I wrote then, the practical problem is that TV broadcasters and cable programmers can only deliver two audio streams: the main audio (usually English) and a secondary audio track (usually either Spanish or video description, but not both). And TV receivers and cable set-top boxes can only decode two audio streams.

The FCC has now begun a new proceeding on delivery of emergency information to blind and sight-impaired viewers. The Commission seems to be aware of the practical problem noted above, but it’s not making much progress in dealing with it.

This proceeding seems to be primarily pointed at TV broadcasters, which deliver emergency information to viewers using a text crawl that consumes a small part of the screen. If this happens during a newscast, the reporter will normally read the information aloud. During other programming, the broadcaster typically does not interrupt the program audio, but instead sends an audible tone to alert sight-impaired viewers. They are expected to turn on a radio or go online to find out what is happening.

The FCC is now proposing to require that if emergency information is delivered during other-than-news programming with a text crawl, that it also be presented aurally. The audio announcement would not interrupt the program audio. Instead, it would have to be delivered over the secondary audio stream (i.e., the Spanish audio track), which would have to be selected by the viewer.

So if the sight-impaired viewer has already selected the secondary audio in order to access a video description audio stream, no problem. But it could be a problem for the sight-impaired viewer that has the main English sound track turned on. They would hear an alert tone on the main audio channel, and then would need to locate the remote control, go into the settings menu and select the secondary audio language. How long would that take? Too long. The FCC should require broadcasters to interrupt the program audio, not force sight-impaired viewers to reach for the remote control.

By the way, the FCC is suggesting (but not requiring) that, when neither Spanish nor video description audio is being transmitted, the secondary audio stream should be populated with the same English language track as the main audio track. In my experience, there are some programs and many advertisements that carry nothing at all on the secondary audio track – it is silent. That is a serious disincentive for sight-impaired viewers who might otherwise leave the secondary audio selected all the time.

This new proceeding also deals with receiving equipment. The FCC discusses the Consumer Electronics Association bulletin CEA CEB-21 (“Recommended practice for selection and presentation of DTV audio”), which recommends that TV receivers be able to receive more than just two audio tracks.

The FCC recognizes that existing receiver limitations may be discouraging video programming distributors from carrying more than two audio streams and asks for ideas on how to facilitate a transition. One possibility that the FCC mentions to deal with this chicken-egg problem is to require that new receiving equipment (both TV receivers and set-top boxes) be able to receive and render more than just two audio tracks, and to require that broadcasters and cable programmers be able to deliver more than two tracks.

Some will argue that neither the Communications Act nor the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 give the FCC authority to impose such requirements. For example, the audio tracks of cable programming are created by unregulated program suppliers and are simply passed through by the MSOs.

And anyway, if programming were delivered with three audio tracks (English, Spanish and video description), then millions of TV receivers and set-top boxes would be incompatible with such an approach. That equipment would continue to recognize audio that is labeled as Spanish (which is how video description is delivered today), but it would not recognize audio that is labeled as video description. As I indicated last year, there is no way to see how a transition could occur.

So this FCC proposal doesn’t accomplish much. While it would require broadcasters to add a spoken emergency alert message, few sight-impaired viewers are likely to change their audio selection settings in time to hear it. And the transition to three audio tracks? Who knows?