United States

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Accessibility to television is covered under Section 713 of Communications Act 1934 relating to video programming accessibility and the related Part 79.1 of the Code of Federal Regulations covers captioning levels. The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 extended captioning requirements to TV programs delivered over the internet, while also reinstating requirements for audio description.

The basic requirements are:

  • 100% of non-exempt new programming to be captioned
  • 75% of pre-rule programming to be captioned (programs before 2002 for digital programs)
  • 100% of Spanish language programming to be captioned, with some exemptions
  • Electronic program guides must be made accessible
  • The top four network channels and top five cable channels must provide audio description (AD) on 7 hours of programming per week
  • Televised emergency information must be accessible to the blind and vision impaired

There are two types of exemptions built into the regulations:

  • Self-implementing exemptions which automatically exempt programs between 2 am and 6 am, captioning that would cost more than 2% of gross revenue, programs primarily in a language other than English or Spanish and non-vocal, music programs
  • Exemptions based on undue burden which include programs where video program service providers can apply to the FCC for an exemption on captioning that would be a significant difficulty or expense

The United States also regulates the technology used to display captions with section 303 (u) of the Communications Act 1934 requiring that any television, locally produced or imported, with a screen larger than 13” must be able display captions and AD.

Under requirement from the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US media and communications regulator, released a Report and Order on 25 August 2011 requiring the major television networks provide audio description on their programming.

In brief, the requirements are::

  • ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates in the top 25 market areas and cable and satellite television providers with more than 50,000 subscribers to provide video description
  • ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, USA, the Disney Channel, TNT, Nickelodeon, and TBS are each required to provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children’s programming per calendar quarter
  • In general, once a program is broadcast with audio description, it that program is passed through to another broadcaster or aired again, it must be broadcast with the audio description

Full compliance with the rules has been required since 1 July 2012.

Any viewer may complain to the FCC if these requirements are not met.

Online media and digital technology

In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their information and communications technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities.  Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, open new opportunities for people with disabilities, and encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals.  The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology.  Under Section 508 (29 U.S.C. ‘794 d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others.

Because the Federal Government is an extremely large consumer in the ICT market, Section 508 effectively required many ICT manufacturers to make their products accessible, or else lose business with the Federal Government.  As such, Section 508 caused somewhat of a shift in the market, with devices designed initially to be accessible for the Federal Government now made available to the public at large.

The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 is the other major piece of legislation covering online media and digital technology.  The major requirements in the Act include the following:

  • All full-length captioned television programs must be captioned when delivered over the internet
  • All receiving devices designed to receive or play back video programming, including TVs, set top boxes, tablets and smart phones, must be capable of displaying closed captions, delivering AD, and accessing emergency information
  • All receiving devices must have on-screen text menus and program guides which are audibly accessible (i.e. the user can choose to hear them spoken).
  • All receiving devices must have a single icon, key or button to activate access features such as captions.

The Act has had far-reaching effects in the US, particularly in the provision of AD and access to online video material. Its scope sets new benchmarks for access legislation, and it is hoped that some of the technical developments it encourages will also filter through to other countries including Australia.

Captioning of full-length online programming has been mandatory since 30 September 2012. From 1 January 2016, individual video clips which have been lifted from pre-recorded programs will have to be captioned, while montages of clips, and clips from live and near-live programs, will have to be captioned from 1 January 2017. In the case of live and near-live clips, there will be a ‘grace period’ of 12 hours and 8 hours respectively before the captions have to go online.

At the moment, these rules only apply to websites owned or controlled by the original TV distributor of the clip. However, the FCC has signalled that it will be looking at whether they will be extended to third parties. It is also asking whether the grace periods should eventually be phased out, whether the rules should apply to mashups, and how they should be applied to advance clips which are posted before TV broadcast.

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